The San Miguel Planning Summit
We were looking forward to some annual life planning in May but it turns out we needed to spend time working on our plans a little earlier than expected because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like right now. Last time we had a major life changing planning summit was our Seabrook Summit which is basically when we decided to retire early. Instead of planning 1 year, 3 years, and 5 years out this time we are focused on 1 month, 3 months, and 7 months out so we have some idea of what the rest of 2020 will look like. We are practicing life planning in bizarre circumstances like so many other people these days.
When we arrived in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico the first thing we did was go to the local office supply store for some big poster pages and post-it notes. Usually we arrive at a new house and then scribble our plans on the windows and mirrors using our dry erase markers, but this time we needed to go deep into strategic planning mode. We actually went to the office supply store before we went to the grocery store! Having a plan, or really a whole ton of options, is what makes us feel most grounded.
Since then we have planned, re-planned, and then planned again on a daily basis because things out of our control and all around the world keep changing and our ideas and emotional attachments change right along with the latest news. Initially we made the mistake of setting up our top 3 options based on where we wanted to go. We probably reworked our plans a half dozen times before we realized what the problem was. This is not a time when we get to do what we want or travel wherever we want. Eventually we realized we were creating extra stress for ourselves by focusing on ideal outcomes instead of realistic outcomes. Now we know the most realistic scenario needs to be our New Plan A for both logical and emotional purposes.
Full-Time Travel During COVID-19
A few days ago we participated in a virtual town hall hosted by the US Ambassador to Mexico. The US diplomatic team here in Mexico did a good job of explaining the way things are impacting all of us US citizens who are residing in Mexico. Every possible motivation to travel from Mexico back to the US was discussed, and they reiterated multiple times that if you are safe at home in Mexico but you want to return to the US right now for social or emotional reasons, you should stay where you are and not travel. I distinctly remember one person who wanted to know if it’s ok to travel back to the US to attend a birthday party – no that is not ok! We are keeping a close eye on our motivations to return to the US, because we really don’t want to be that guy.
The biggest takeaway for us is that virus related issues have not changed residency and visa rules in Mexico. And we don’t plan to become residents in Mexico. We are supposed to leave Mexico by June 24 at the very latest, and though we can apply for extended stay visas there’s something reassuring about sticking with the plan to leave on May 3.
Way back on January 1 we booked our flight back to the US for May 3, long before things got crazy. When the US State Department issued the alert “Global Level 4 Health Advisory – Do Not Travel” on March 19, we decided to avoid non-essential international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19. We have been patiently hanging out at home in Mexico, with no essential need to travel back to the US. Our original plan for returning to the US still seems like the right plan for us. We are hoping to avoid the chaos people experienced when traveling back to the US in March. If we’re lucky our flight and the airports we visit in May will not be crowded or chaotic.
What If Our Flight Is Canceled?
If the flight we booked for May 3 gets canceled we can extend our stay in San Miguel for a few more weeks, or we can look for another flight immediately. And if things are even more haywire at that point and flying into the US is not a good option, we can travel by car. We could fly north to Culiacán where some of our good friends live since they have generously volunteered to drive us north to the Arizona border. Or we have another friend here in San Miguel who could drive us to the Texas border. I seriously doubt we would need to travel back by car rather than by airplane, but we like to have a lot of options so we figured it doesn’t hurt to map out those ideas out as well.
What was 2020 Supposed to Look Like?
Our original plan was to be in Mexico until May 3, then travel back to the US to visit family and friends, then spend the summer traveling with Alison’s Mom, then take Mom home where we could see family and friends again and also attend FinCon in Long Beach. After that we planned to spend the rest of the year in Europe.
The first change we experienced was when our 5 week housesit in San Miguel from the end of March to the beginning of May was canceled. We were expecting that one so we simply found a house of our own in San Miguel and carried on with social distancing here. Then our nephew’s graduation ceremony in Colorado was canceled so we dumped our flights and planned visits for that trip. After that we decided we should cancel our May roadtrip plans to drive from California through Oregon to Seattle to see friends. That included two more graduations and two weeks of visits with friends.
The next thing on the agenda is/was catching a flight on June 24 to start our summer travels with Alison’s Mom. For this summer we booked a month in Ireland, a month in England, and a month in Scotland and the three of us have been looking forward to those summer plans since last year. Alison’s mom uses our packing list for summer travels with us and she was already packed up and ready to go, and just unpacked and put her things away last week. As the virus started to spread around the world and we all learned about the risks of COVID-19, it became clear to us that there’s no way we can take Alison’s 81 year old mom traveling abroad this year. We had also planned to spend October in Croatia with a visit from my youngest sister there, which I suppose could still happen. After that we planned to spend November in Portugal with some new nomad friends, but they have canceled their plans to retire and travel this year. It’s possible that Alison and I will still go to Portugal in November but if so we will miss our friends there. Lastly, we booked a 3 week housesit in Southern England that is supposed to start on December 13, and for now we assume that plan still has a good chance of happening.
Heading Back to the US to Visit Family?
Going back to the US to see family a couple times a year is part of our routine so we are spending a lot of time trying to figure out how we can still make that happen. The hard part is figuring out how to visit family now that there are isolation and social distancing rules in place. At this point if our May 3rd flight to the US is still leaving on schedule we plan to be on that flight. And if my sister in California is still willing to have us come stay at there house, that’s still our first stop. But instead of our usual plan to stay in their mother in law suite we will be staying in their RV in the driveway. I like the idea of getting to my sister’s house on May 3rd so we can jump up and down and wave as they wave back at us through their windows. But I was also planning to stay a night with my aunt who is in the middle of a cancer treatment process so we could go through some old family photos and documents, but those plans will have to wait until next time so we can make sure we are protecting her during this crazy time.
After a couple weeks in isolation in the RV we will rent a car and drive to Arizona where most of Alison’s family lives. We won’t fly because that would mean we have to start another couple weeks of isolation. Regardless, we may not be able to see Alison’s 81 year old Mom at all this summer. Alison’s Mom lives in a retirement community that’s on total lockdown, no visitors are allowed in and no residents are supposed to go out. She is as safe as she can possibly be right now, which is reassuring even if it means we can’t see her. Ordinarily we stay with her in her cottage, but this summer we will stay on our own in AZ for a couple of weeks just to be near her.
Stay 2 Months in the US?
Everyday I check in with my sister to reiterate my plan and let her reiterate her plan. Air hugs and backyard meals will be the new normal during this visit. That’s how it has to be in order to make it as safe as possible for them and for us. If things change to the point where staying in their RV in the driveway is too close, I think we will ask them to put our extra clothes and gear in the driveway so we can pick it up and keep moving. Next on the agenda is to rent a car and drive to Arizona.
During our 2 month visit we are pretending it might still be possible for us to fly to Ireland on June 24 as planned, though without Alison’s Mom. Even in that best case scenario the likelihood of us all feeling safe enough to take Alison’s 81 year old Mom on an international trip this year is basically zero. If Alison and I could still leave as planned we would make one significant change to the itinerary and drop the most expensive portion of the trip. We planned on visiting York and the Lake District because we thought Mom would love that, but it’s out of our solo nomad budget so we would cancel those plans and spend more time in Ireland and Scotland instead. And then we would cancel our plan to return to the US to take her home at the end of summer. We would stay in Europe next and then end the year with the 3 week housesit we have booked in Southern England in December. It’s probably not realistic for us to plan to leave the US and fly to Ireland on June 24. But we’ve been looking forward to that for a year so we want to keep a little hope alive for that idea, even if it is extremely optimistic and only about 25% realistic.
Stay 4 Months in the US?
If we can’t keep our flight to Ireland we have a next level plan to stay in the US for around 4 months. In this version of our plan we still spend a few weeks in my sister’s RV and then we will spend a couple of months in Arizona. Alison’s sister and brother in law have a vacation rental house and they have offered it to us for the summer. The house is about 2 hours away from our family and seems like a great place to stay by ourselves for a couple of months. We would borrow Alison’s mom’s car since she’s on lockdown in her retirement community and isn’t supposed to be going anywhere. We feel very lucky to have family who want to help us right now!
The best part about this plan is that we want to think it’s possible that things will improve enough that we can see Alison’s Mom later this summer. If that happens we will go pick her up and take her back to the vacation house for a while where the three of us can stay isolated together. That might be as close as we can get to maintaining at least a shred of our plan to spend the summer traveling with Alison’s Mom. And if we can’t spend time with Mom we will be glad we are in Arizona for a couple of months just to be near her.
After spending about 4 months in the US we would hope to leave and pick up the last third of our summer plans in Scotland. Instead. If we can make that happen we could spend about three months in Scotland, or we could split that time in Ireland since we were excited about our first trip to Ireland in our original summer plan. And we would be able to keep what’s supposed to be a non-refundable month long booking at a house on the Isle of Skye. Then we would still end the year with the 3 week housesit we have booked in Southern England in December. We see this option as fairly realistic, but still only about 50% likely to occur because at this point it doesn’t sound like we would be able to travel from the US into the UK or Ireland in August.
Stay as Long as 7 Months in the US?
If we can’t travel to Scotland in August due to border closures or other virus related issues, we would finally be forced to cancel our entire summer trip. In that case we would stay in the US through the summer months and plan to pick up our travels in early October at the earliest or December at the latest. If we are still in the US on September 30 and the FinCon event is still happening, maybe it would be ok for us to attend that as planned so we can see some of our friends from the FIRE community (financial independence, retire early). And in that case maybe it would be ok for us to keep the flight we have booked to Croatia on October 6 out of LA. If we make it to Croatia in October we would hope to also make it to Portugal in November. Either way we assume we have a good chance of keeping our December housesit in England since our hosts there are also very determined to keep their December plans and they are counting on us to be there in England for them.
If we still need to stay grounded in the US beyond October we could spend a month in Washington State where we used to live. We could also stay somewhere else in the US that feels new to us, and in that case we would hope to visit some National Parks with some of our spare time.
Even if we end up staying in the US for as long as 7 months we still plan to resume our full-time travel lifestyle outside the US as soon as possible. So we would not be looking for a home of our own or even a camper van or small RV. We will be ready to leave the US again as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Choose Your Own Adventure
This new plan is like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book with a bunch of possibilities. When we first started putting this list of options together it seemed somewhat pessimistic, but now that we have talked it through a few times and discussed it with our family and friends we feel better about it. We assume some version of this plan is about 75% likely to occur. But we still want to keep a few shreds of hope alive for keeping our trip to Ireland or at least Scotland.
The other thing to keep in mind is that our global healthcare insurance is not as great in the US compared to other countries since medical costs are so much higher in the US. It will be time for checkups and dental cleanings very soon and we would really prefer to have those appointments outside the US if possible.
It’s clear now that we need to spend a chunk of time back in the US where we are legally residents and no border closure can block us from entering or force us to leave. And we know there’s also a possibility that COVID-19 could cycle back through the planet again this winter, which would likely mean we have an even longer stay in the US than 7 months. And it’s possible that at some point it might be just as easy for us to be in isolation in one of our neighbor countries of Canada or Mexico. But for now those countries and pretty much every place we are interested in visiting in the near future, has clearly stated that they do not want travelers like us entering their countries at this time. The only country we are allowed to enter without restriction is the US since we are US citizens.
How Does All of this Affect Our FIRE Plan?
We reached our FIRE number in 2017 and then retired in 2018 at ages 44 and 54. At that point we decided not to stay living in one location. We decided to sell our home in Seattle so we could travel full time for a few years. We have been traveling mostly outside of the US since November 1st 2018, which is not a very long time in the grand scheme of things. But we have really enjoyed traveling and being “home free.” We are in no hurry to settle back down in one location in the US again. Travel is how we keep ourselves occupied and constantly learning these days.
When we designed our FIRE plan we actually did plan for a Black Swan event. We designed our FIRE plan with 33x living expenses and 3% annual withdrawals. We also started our early retirement with 5 years of living expenses in cash to protect ourselves and our investments since we assumed a prolonged down market could likely occur in the first few years of our retirement. So far our plan is doing what we hoped it would do, and we are definitely not second guessing our own FIRE plans or the FIRE concept in general. Of course we are experiencing market issues with the rest of the world, but we are still confident in our investments and longterm recovery and growth. We could not be more grateful to be financially independent and retired right now.
The virus and associated border issues were quite big surprises and we certainly did not plan for any of that, so our travel plans are the portion of our lives that we are forced to rethink these days. But we still have a ton of options and flexibility. And we are healthy and as happy as we could possibly be considering the issues the world is facing these days.
We Are Not Changing Our Budget
We have a comprehensive yearly budget that covers all our personal living costs, travel costs, medical expenses, and estimated taxes. We know exactly what our necessary expenses are including housing, healthcare, and food. And we know what our less critical expenses are, such as entertainment and gifts. And we have no debt of any kind. We can tighten our annual budget by quite a lot if we need to, but we are not making any changes to our budget right now. We feel confident that we have enough flexibility in our budget that even though we will clearly be doing less housesitting than planned this year to save on housing costs, with a few adjustments we will still be able to stick to our annual budget.
A lot of people are talking about making changes to their investments right now, particularly with the new bear market. To start our FIRE plan we set aside 5 years of living expenses in CDs, mutual funds, and cash to cover us from 2019 through the end of 2023. That money is strictly for our living expenses so we will not invest that money in the market or use it for any other purpose. Starting in 2024 we plan to start withdrawing no more than 3% per year from our investments to cover our living expenses. We are not making changes to our FIRE plan.
We started out with an equity to bond allocation in our investments of 75% equities and 25% bonds. When the market dropped 20%, our portfolio only dropped 15% and so we are grateful we had that cushion. Alison will rebalance our portfolio in May like she does every year. Since our equities dropped in value our allocation will probably be closer to 65% equities and 35% bonds when it’s time for rebalancing. If that is the case we will sell some bonds that have not dropped in value and buy equities that are now at a lower price. We will not try to time the market, we’ll just do our annual rebalancing on schedule to move our asset allocation back into the 75/25 range.
Bottom Line – Some Things Haven’t Changed
We love our full-time travel lifestyle and we are not ready emotionally or financially to get serious about finding a permanent home right now.
Reasonable people absolutely have to change their behavior right now. And not just for a couple weeks. We assume we will have to change our behavior and be as stationary as possible and as isolated as possible until numerous countries all over the world have agreed that travel is safe and acceptable again. That probably won’t happen until there’s an accessible vaccination being distributed broadly across the general public in regions around the world. And when we are eventually allowed to start traveling again, we know the world will be a different place because of COVID-19.
We are prepared to keep calm and change everything, as many times as it takes for as long as it takes. So this is our new plan. And tomorrow we might change it again.