Getting Grounded in 2021, Our Year in Review

It’s hard to believe that 2021 is behind us now, but it is! This is a good time to pause and think about how the year went. Our main goal in 2021 was simple, to feel grounded again!

We were traveling full time in 2020 when Covid was declared a pandemic. Some of our friends and family got very sick, and some of our friends and family died from Covid. All of that made us realize that we wanted a home of our own again where we could feel safe. I didn’t want to fill my days with border closures and travel restrictions, and constant uncertainty. And I didn’t like the idea that I wasn’t allowed to see my mom who was a nation away from us under quarantine in her retirement community. So our main goals for 2021 were setting up a new home base for ourselves near my mom, and building an apartment for our housemate on our property.

In January we moved back to the US and into our new home in Northern Arizona, just two days before a snow storm dumped 40” of snow. We spent a couple of weeks stuck at home without the right boots or coats to wear in the snow, and with no gear for clearing the snow. Looking back, that might have been a harbinger of how our year was going to go. But we made the best of all our challenges and opportunities!

The AOC Compound

We arrived without snow shovels and tools but our neighbors offered us their shovels and encouragement, and eventually we dug ourselves out of the snow.

We spent the first few months of 2021 getting ready to start construction on a separate living space, which we call the “pa-in-law” because we built this addition for a man (nicknamed Marcus) we have chosen as our family after many decades of having him in my life.

We watched the weeks and months go by at our new home base, doing little things to repair our fixer-upper while we waited to build the pa-in-law. Finally by June instead of February someone working for our understaffed and overworked county building division finally approved our construction plans. But along with permission to build we had one of the most intense monsoon seasons they had seen in Arizona in many years. In June we had well above average rainfall for the month and actually set 5 new rainfall records. It was amazing! And it put a stop to the digging we needed for the new foundation. We were frustrated by the delays, and shocked when we saw a huge backhoe sink in the mud in our yard. But at the same time we were glad to discover that our lot has a relatively shallow layer of top soil over a very deep layer of clay.

Our goal was to complete the pa-in-law by the end of June, and then immediately start repair on the foundation of our house and follow that with some fun remodeling inside. The delays were not fun, but all of that weather helped us avoid bigger construction problems by giving us the information we needed about our lot. Now we know our foundation has settled because it’s sitting in clay instead of standing on rock. That was something the contractors, inspectors, and engineers weren’t able to tell us by looking at plans or the foundation. The backhoe and the rain were the key to the problems, and the key to the solution as well. We know much more about why our house settled the way it did, and now we’ll be able to work with our engineer to repair those foundation issues the right way.

Our housemate arrived safe and sound at the end of June as planned. Since the pa-in-law wasn’t anywhere near finished, he settled in comfortably upstairs and we got to work learning how to share space. We essentially turned our home into two apartments with a shared kitchen and living room, and completely stopped plans to remodel our home since we needed to avoid chaos while we all learned how to be housemates. None of us has had roommates since we were each in our 20’s, but that time together taught us a lot about each other and we really appreciated adding more depth to our already strong relationships.

Since the pa-in-law took much longer than expected, and we hated the idea of making Marcus wait, we encouraged him to go get the puppy he had been dreaming of and had planned for later after he was settled in his new space. Ali and I have chosen not to have pets of our own and that decision still works for us. But we love being around other peoples pets and we love pet sitting. We certainly know what amazing additions pets can be in peoples’ lives and we feel lucky that we get to share a house with Marcus’ puppy Zoey. She’s so smart, funny, and loving! Everyday she understands more and she’s growing into a wonderful companion pup for Marcus. We kidnap Zoey very regularly because she has been such a fabulous addition to the compound!

Family Time

2021 was very different for us! Ali and I used to love having my mom and dad visit every summer when we lived in Seattle. And we enjoyed having my aunt “nearby” where we could visit her after about six hours of travel to reach her. But we were still quite geographically distant from family in general.

By the end of 2021 we had six months with our housemate and five months with his puppy, we had my younger sister and her husband in town at their rental house about one weekend a month, and we enjoyed seeing my mom each month since she lives only two hours away. In fact we got to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with my mom and with my younger sister and her family, and our housemate, so the holidays were fabulous!

I’m so glad to be close by to mom so I can help if she needs me. Ali and I love it when we visit with mom and she gives us tasks to help with her electronics, or her garden, or with preparing for her latest creative projects. We also got to spend time with my big sister and celebrate her 60th birthday together, which was really special. And now we’re looking forward to celebrating my mom’s 83rd birthday in a few weeks!

We spent time with all six of our nieces and nephews in 2021, and enjoyed really different kinds of visits with them as young adults all working on building their own independent lives. We’re so proud of all of them! And as I write this we’re getting ready for our first visit with our newest family member, recently born to Ali’s cousin who is much like a little brother for her. We can hardly wait to meet this new baby and we’ve already added him to our pack of nieces and nephews, along with our chosen nephew who’s still in Seattle. So now we have a fabulous set of 8 nieces and nephews!

And Ali got a big surprise when her youngest sister showed up and surprised Ali in our new home town so they could celebrate their birthdays together. Any time they get together for their birthdays is a special treat! Admittedly, we didn’t get to spend quality time in person with all of our close family members in 2021, but we got really close to it and we’re excited to see how things go next year. By far the greatest gift we got in 2021 was time with family.

Christmas Day with Mom

Travel Time

It seems like a million years ago now but we were actually on the Isle of Wight in England on New Year’s Day in 2021, since we were on international health insurance in 2020. Back then in January of 2021 we had a plan to travel to Europe with our youngest niece during the summer after she graduated from high school. But we postponed that trip because of the Covid pandemic (fingers crossed we can make up for that trip in June of 2022!).

We decided to put our time and energy into domestic road trips in 2021 because that felt safer and far less complicated. Every time I hear stories from our nomad friends who are still traveling internationally and dealing with the complicated logistics of doing that at this point in the Covid pandemic, I’m glad we chose to put our international travels on pause for a bit.

We had three pet sitting experiences in 2021, and it felt good to get back into the groove of house and pet sitting. We did one pet sitting gig in our home town, taking care of three goats. That was a new experience! We also took two house sits for 10 days each to take care of homes and dogs that were located within a relatively short driving distance from home (about an hour) so we could get back if needed. House and pet sitting is something we enjoy so I’m really glad we used those opportunities to get away from home and travel safely on a budget.

We also took a bunch of road trips to see family and friends, and now we’re feeling like we’ve found our domestic travel groove. We went to California to see two of our nieces graduate and spent time with family. While we were in that area we spent time with our buddy Tanja from Our Next Life and some of our other friends from our 2019 Chautauqua retreat.

We also went to Nevada to see some old friends from Seattle that we have missed a lot. And while we were there we had dinner out with our buddies The Debt Free Guys, who are always fabulous to spend time with. We also drove over to Santa Fe, New Mexico with my mom and enjoyed plenty of artwork and sites. Then we drove with mom to Colorado where we spent time with our oldest nephew and visited a town that was very special to my mom years ago. 

Right here in Arizona we’ve had so many great meetups that I can’t list them all here. For example we had brunch with Josh Overmeyer when he drove through our town during his gap year travels. We also met Mrs Rich Frugal Life and found another kindred spirit we look forward to seeing again. On top of all that we got to sit down for dinner and real conversation with our friend Purple from A Purple Life, after three years of virtual friendship. Making eye contact and laughing together was a big improvement compared to when we first failed to chat at a meetup in Seattle in 2018, where we were all too introverted to figure out how to talk to each other!

We also traveled to Boston in October and saw one of Ali’s younger sisters and her husband there. Then we went on our first solo trip with our youngest niece who’s currently exploring possible future home towns for herself, and that made us very happy. We got to spend time with our middle niece who’s going to school in Boston now and have those two of our nieces together for a fun day exploring.

That trip to Massachusetts ended up being our favorite trip of the year because we also took our first trip out to Cape Cod to stay in Provincetown, and we celebrated my birthday there. We got to catch up with some friends that we first met in France back in 2014 who now live on Cape Cod, which was amazing! We also had brunch with one of my favorite financial coaching friends who lives in the area, and meeting her in real life was a treat. And we got to spend an evening having dinner and getting to know some of our financial blogging friends better too, Darcy from We Want Guac and Jessica from The Fioneers. We weren’t able to see everyone we wanted to see in Boston on that trip, but we plan to spend more time around there next year!

The All Options Considered Blog

2021 included some great experiences with our blog. In fact I think 2021 was our best year with the blog so far because we’ve had such wonderful coaching experiences and made so many new friends. Most surprisingly, we were nominated for two Plutus awards among some bloggers we really admire, which was thrilling to say the least. And we actually won a Plutus award for Best Financial Independence or Retire Early Content! We’re still in disbelief that we won!

We keep waiting for the moment when the blog isn’t how we want to spend our time anymore, but that moment has not come yet and we’re glad about that. This is our 30th post for 2021, and we’re still enjoying blogging so stay tuned for more. We’re still not turning the blog into a job, or into a business. But we have lots of ideas for new Money Crush posts covering the portfolio management strategies we’ve learned so far during our early retirement.

We also started our Talking Money interview series in 2021, and we’ve been having a lot of fun with that. We enjoy being good listeners for other people who want to tell their stories!

Money Crush

2021 was a year of learning how our budget would change since we decided to return to living full time in the US again. We were in a new town and state in 2021, with different tax laws and new responsibilities relating to our home base and compound. We knew our 2021 Arizona budget would be higher than our nomad budgets for 2019 and 2020, and also higher than our 2018 budget from when we lived in Seattle. So we set a baseline budget and tracked it throughout the year. But at some point I realized I had to stop obsessing over it because that was stressing me out!

More specifically, we prepared individual budgets for our daily living expenses, setting up our new home base, buying a used car, and construction for building the pa-in-law. And to be clear, we went over every single budget except for our car buying budget. I admit that stressed me out. But at the same time I knew it was ok since we had cash set aside for everything with enough cushion to cover the unique changes in costs we saw in 2021.

Why did we go over on so many different types of spending?

I’ll start with the one area where we were on budget. Thank goodness we bought our used car before prices spiked. I’m happy to say we got a good deal there.

We did much more giving to individuals and organizations we wanted to support in 2021 than we had planned for. And we were much more social with new friends and old friends, and very regularly spending money while spending time with our friends and family. And we were able to treat our loved ones during all of the trips we took around the US. We don’t regret a single dollar spent on giving in 2021.

Since we gave away or sold pretty much all of our furniture in 2018 when we retired and left Seattle, we ended up doing a lot of buying in 2021 to set up our new home base. We needed things like two beds, a couch, a dining room table and chairs, and so on. I’m so glad we had that storage unit packed full back in Seattle so we didn’t have to buy anything for the kitchen!

Some of the first things we bought back in January were snow shovels and a little plow. Along with heavy winter jackets, warm layers, hats, gloves, boots. Then we bought more clothes and shoes for home projects when we realized we had nothing we should be wearing inside while painting, or outside while gardening and digging around in the dirt. And we bought a whole bunch of yard work and gardening tools. And we also bought a whole bunch of tools for fixing things around the house. Ouch.

2021 was full of clear reminders that setting up a home base in the US can lead to buying lots of stuff. Especially if you’ve moved to a true 4-season climate like we did. We aren’t the most frugal people but we do believe in moderation so we looked for deals, sales, and thrifting when we could.

And don’t forget inflation, because 2021 was a spectacular year for inflation on everything from food to lumber! We also experienced serious supply chain issues and material shortages for building our pa-in-law addition on the compound. Our contractor had to change suppliers and look for materials much further out of our local area, and the waiting times were surprisingly long for things like windows and doors. Everything cost more than the original estimates we set with our contractor back in February, but we planned for that possibility. And though we went over budget on the addition, we’re still on budget for total spending we had planned for the property. We decided to put off remodeling our fixer-upper for a bit so we could focus on finishing the pa-in-law. We improved the property and increased the overall value of the house. And most importantly, we accomplished our primary goal of setting up a co-living situation with our chosen family.

We also found a new Arizona CPA who could handle the fact that we are a same sex couple who retired early and has some interesting questions now and then. Thankfully we found someone close enough to visit in person if needed, who works remotely with clients all over the state. And she doesn’t treat us like fools when we want to talk about the tax implications of being on the ACA, doing annual Roth conversions, making QHFD’s, funding and withdrawing from HSA’s, and handling foreign tax credits. She treats us like our questions are valid and we understand our money, and she gives us the very math-heavy answers we want. Finally a good CPA we can trust and learn from, who isn’t trying to fit us into a generic box.

Happy New Year!

So that’s it, goodbye 2021. Our main goal was just to feel grounded again, and we definitely accomplished our mission.

We had a good year, we’re happy and healthy, we have a lot to be grateful for, and we’re looking forward to 2022! Our plans are to keep improving our compound, to get out and explore the US in our SUV, to have my mom with us at home here as much as possible, to keep coaching others and learning more about retirement planning, to give and volunteer even more! Oh, and we also need to update our wills.

We don’t know what challenges we’ll face in 2022, but we’re wishing you a safe, prosperous, and grounded new year.

17 comments

  1. Wonderful post, always interested in hearing your thought processes and sound financial decisions. Happy new year Alison and Ali! Please get in touch if you’re ever near Delaware!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy New Year to you! And thanks for reading our posts. This year we really felt like we were embarking on a whole new phase in our retired life. Having budgets which are really informed guesstimates are all we can do when wading into uncharted territory. And thank goodness for our family motto, All Options Considered. If we didn’t approach life with openness to what’s possible we wouldn’t have tried many of the things we have tried, some of which have been more successful than others. But the decision to set up a home base has really been the right move given all that’s gone on in the last few years.

      We hope you have a great New Year and perhaps we will see you on one of our adventures (and we do hope to visit your area next year). Cheers!

      Like

  2. I have followed your blog for a while now, and this post resonated with me because we encountered similar situations. In 2018 we left our tropical island home because of a revolution and returned to the states. We rented our house to friends for ten years who had no idea how to paint or maintain or repair little things in our house. My husband was diagnosed with throat cancer, and during his treatments we painted, remodeled, and repaired our entire house. Our friends left it a wicked mess. We bought a used car and searched through thrift stores for winter clothes. I went through an identity crisis..who am I now? Then, Covid hit and the little bit of international travel we tried to do, came to a screeching halt. So, I definitely understand. When given lemons, make lemonade. And that is what you did. Same here. My husband is cured, we wait patiently to travel internationally again, and are hoping 2022 will be a better year for travel. Thanks for your blog. I sincerely hope your new year is full of love and kindness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for sharing a bit of your story. And you have made a lot of really good lemonade for sure! Being flexible has really helped and it sounds like you all hung in there and it’s starting to come together. Here’s to a bit of happy travels in 2022!! Our very best to you both. And do come back and tell us what you get up to this coming year. Best

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  3. So heartwarming to hear this recap! And educational! I can’t believe how much support you lend to personal finance wannabes through your blogs and consults with all these big family plans and home changes going on! Happy new year!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Steph. We’re really enjoying what we’ve been getting up to and learning a ton along the way. Happy new year!

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  4. A great post, Alison! Thanks for sharing about your busy retired life ;-).
    Buying a house and discovering its issues, building a new addition, living in a new state, and doing all kinds of traveling would be like a couple of FT jobs to me. Imagine if you did this while working a job… Since we are still working and raising kids, reading your post almost made me feel overwhelmed, but this feeling came because of my employment. I think if I was FIRE’d having an extra 9 hours a day would allow me to tackle those new challenges. Though OTOH, I hear ya about the stress about money and budgets.
    I’m very curious to read your posts from the new “Money Crush” series. I hope you’ll start writing them soon, LOL, no pressure because I want your blog to continue. BTW, I’m not surprised about your blog winning an award. Totally deserved!!!

    If it’s OK to ask, how does a rapport with a CPA work in general? Is this something similar to having a financial advisor when you pay a monthly fee in order to have your questions answered or do you send a list of your questions sometimes and depending on their complexity she sets up a consultation that is charged an $x per hour?
    We haven’t needed professional help thus far, but I won’t be surprised if we need in the future. I wonder how people go about finding a CPA and how they determine that they get qualified help. We know many stories of people being unhappy with their financial advisors, but maybe they are more satisfied with CPA’s.

    Happy new year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey S&M,

      Ya, if we had full time jobs and kids we wouldn’t have enough time to do what we’re doing. We are loving what we’ve been up too, and we still over schedule ourselves way too often. When we are doing too much we have to remind ourselves that many things really can wait. And we know we are very privileged to be able to change things around to fit our needs.

      We’re really glad you’re enjoying Money Crush. We have a lot of fun learning how to manage our money, how to save, and how to spend in retirement. It’s not one size fits all and it is very personality based. Plus the tax codes always add another twist the more we look into our options.

      Regarding working with a CPA… Since we are not CPA’s and we really don’t want to get in trouble with the IRS, having a professional we can ask questions of and trust to look over our taxes helps a lot so we we have agreed to pay for that kind of extra help. Most of our questions are straight forward and don’t take too much time to answer so we haven’t paid beyond filing fees to have someone to answer our questions. We have found it hard to find the right CPA for our questions, but we have that person now, and paying for tax preparation and filing every year has not been expensive. I do know if we had bigger projects we would would be paying by the hour for help.

      It’s tough to find a good CPA. For us, we make a list of questions from our past returns and interactions when a CPA might have let us down and then we turn them into “test” questions for a new CPA. Then we meet in person or virtually to discuss things. If they get stumped by any of our questions or find we are not a good personality fit, we move on to another CPA candidate. Each time we go through that process we talk to 3 people in hopes of finding someone we can work with. We are currently on our third CPA in 10 years and this one might be a real keeper since she has really impressed us with her answers to our questions (that’s a first). The main thing for us is not to get too complacent, and notice when they stop giving us good service and start trying to fit us into their cookie cutter process. We check their work, we ask them to explain things, we ask if they see anything else we should consider, and we tell them constantly that we don’t want cookie cutter advice! Because YOU are a snow flake if you are trying to retire early! Oh, and if they seem to have a boiler plate answer for everything and can’t admit when they need to do their own research before responding, that when we worry. CPA’s may not know everything so I want them to be able to say, “let me look into that and I will find out.” As a client, I do not need a babysitter to puff my ego or theirs, I want a problem solving partner who can help us work within the tax codes.

      Good luck!

      Like

  5. Wonderful post recapping a very eventful year for you. I am glad you feel grounded in your new home with your housemate and visiting family and friends. Hope 2022 proves to be wonderful for you to realize all your goals and aspirations.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Busy year! Glad it included lots of time with family and friends! Looking forward to seeing the numbers for setting up the new place and its addition. One of the options I’m considering involves selling my current place to move to a less densely populated area, which would require understanding and handling home fixes and maintenance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The thing to know about buying a place is that you WILL encounter higher than expected maintenance costs. It should just be a given. We had a budget for everything and then the challenges hit, like shortages in both materials and workers. The changes weren’t so large that we couldn’t accommodate them but one does have to be ready to “pull the plug” if a project jeopardizes your overall plan. For now, we are still in the “go” zone of our plan, but we’ve decided to take 2022 off from additional big house projects so we can focus on enjoying time with mom and exploring around the Western US. That will also give us time to really plan out what we want and need to do next in the main house as well as re-developing that part of our budget. Cheers!

      Like

      • Good to have the plan for what are acceptable costs and the upper bound. This year’s financial planning will include pricing out the options that I am interested in pursuing as well as the pros and cons that are not financially based. I still have many years to add detail and understand how to achieve them, but it could help me be more clear about what number I would need to reach to “unlock” each path.

        Flexible road trips are the best! All the excitement of adventure with none of the pressure to be somewhere at a certain time.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. My goodness, what a year full of unexpected choices and projects!

    I really got a lot out of our coaching call and the changes I made because of our conversation are going to let me take a gap year. I’ll have to work a few more years after that time off, but I’m viewing it as a mini retirement and also a fact-finding mission – what will I do all day? how will I spend my money? how much does a year off cost?? – So, thank you for doing that!

    That town in Colorado looks fascinating and is a great reminder that we can have lots of adventures within our very own borders (sigh). How special that you could bring Alison’s mom back for a trip down memory lane.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Love the gap year idea!!!!!!!! Lots of people worry about what they will do every day in retirement. It’s different for everyone. We know a guy in the pacific northwest who is restoring boats now that he’s retired. This year we’re trying to travel domestically one week a month. This month in January we’re seeing friends in Palm Springs, visiting our sisters in NorCal and meeting a new baby cousin (we are vaccinated+boosted and so are they, we all have masks, and we’re loaded with at home test kits). That means lots of driving but we don’t have to get back quickly so we can take our time. Each year of retirement means discovering more flexibility, and we love that. Keep us posted on how it goes for you!!!!

      Like

    • The gap year concept is fascinating! How are you approaching planning the time off? Structured time vs. free flow, staying local vs. traveling, learning new skills or gaining new experiences, having time with loved ones… There’s so many cool things one could fit in a year! Happy for you 🙂

      ::starts plotting own gap year::

      Liked by 2 people

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