Life is ever-changing. We’ve always engineered our living expenses to be ultra-low, and when you combine super low expenses with full-time, middle-class jobs, an explosion of wealth is inevitable. But as we close in on the finish line of financial independence, spending large amounts of time at work seems a lot less appealing. The point of working and saving so hard was never to accumulate as much money as possible — it was always about buying freedom.

Photo of Pensacola Beach
Pensacola Beach, Florida. You can find this photo in our art shop.

So starting this year, we’re through with 40-hour work weeks — maybe forever. I’ve dropped down to a part-time position at work that can mostly be done from anywhere, and Lauren has cobbled together a tidy list of three or four small freelance gigs. We’ll be saving a lot less compared to years past, but our net worth is already up to a level we’re pretty comfortable with. The income we’re giving up is buying geographic freedom and time, which is a non-renewable resource.

Last week, we decided to celebrate with an out-of-the-blue Florida road trip, just to get out of the house and explore our backyard — and we learned a few things about this new life pretty quickly.

Weathering Storms Along the Way

To keep hotel costs at our preferred level of $0, we planned to park and sleep in our camper van. We recently renewed our Planet Fitness membership to restore our ability to get workouts and take showers anywhere we go.

Since our rig isn’t insulated and has no overnight heat or AC, van life isn’t always possible, but we figured Florida winter nights would be mild and cool, and we could just stay close to home. That was immediately ruled out by a short heat wave.

If we were on a traditional weekend trip, with a couple of days carved out from an otherwise busy work schedule, this would have left us with two options: Either pay through the nose for hotels, or just stay home. But this felt completely different. We didn’t really have a specified time period in mind, or even an exact destination. So instead of staying in Florida, we just decided to migrate a little north into cooler weather for a while. Problem solved.

Photo of our van in Mississippi
We would eventually make it as far from home as Jackson, Mississippi. The Barnett Reservoir is the state’s largest source of drinking water and a pretty cool recreation area.

Since we were in no hurry, we decided to stop by and visit my cousins in Jacksonville before leaving Florida. We had a free night of air conditioning and some partners for a game of The Settlers of Catan. It wasn’t part of the original plan, but we were starting to realize that just doesn’t matter.

Anyway, our reason for heading farther north was for better weather, right? Well, that didn’t exactly work out as planned either. We pretty much drove through torrential downpours for three days straight. So that was interesting.

To top it all off, a rock hit our windshield somewhere along the way, and the tiny crack just seems to keep expanding every day. We don’t carry comprehensive insurance on our van, so we’ll have to pay for a replacement out-of-pocket. Neat.

Photo of windshield during storm
Rain seemed to pretty much follow us wherever we went. Here’s some in Meridian, Mississippi.

Normally, when your vacation gets ruined by bad weather and unfortunate events, it’s pretty easy to get angry. But we didn’t really experience that this time. We just laughed it all off and figured “tomorrow will probably be better.”

That’s not easy when you have a limited number of tomorrows before the next one is a workday. And that’s another benefit of financial independence that we’ve only just begun to discover. Cutting back on your work obligations gives you a sort of emotional resilience about everything.

A bunch of little lifestyle changes like skipping cable TV, riding a bike to work, living in a smaller place, grocery shopping at Walmart, and making very boring stock market investments has really started to give us a sort of freedom over our time that’s tough to describe. We felt that on this trip.

Some Trip Highlights

With all my talk about what went wrong and how we felt about it, it’s worth noting that we did eventually have some fun on this trip, too. The weather eventually improved, and our cracked windshield didn’t shatter in on us or anything lol, so that was a plus. Let me tell you about some cool spots you should check out in America’s southeast.

On our way up through Atlanta, we got to eat at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, Nacho Daddy. It’s a place we discovered in Las Vegas a few years ago, and they just recently put a single location out here on the East Coast. They have insane vegan chicken fajitas that are pretty tough to tell apart from the real thing.

From there, we headed toward Birmingham, Alabama, and along the way, we passed through Talladega National Forest and got in a hike to some waterfalls. Our favorite parts of most trips usually include some exercise and a little solitude. This checked both boxes.

The farthest we got from home was Jackson, Mississippi. In search of some more outdoor activity, we stumbled upon a little spot called Liberty Park in the nearby town of Madison and took a walk. It was really nothing special, but it was a good place to just hang out. Later on, we checked out the Barnett Reservoir as well. But we honestly had a (completely frivolous) ulterior motive for reaching Jackson…

Photo of Beyond Meatball sandwich at Subway
The Beyond Meatball Sub tasted fantastic, but it was admittedly expensive. We felt like the portion size was stingy, so we needed to pay for extra meatballs to make it worthwhile.

Jackson is one of very few test cities for the Beyond Meatball Sub, which we were dying to try since we are weird vegan food tourists. So, hilariously, one of the top attractions for us in this city was a Subway sandwich shop. Don’t judge.

Once the weather started to cool back down, we headed south again and hit up the Florida panhandle. We found some free parking and hung out on Pensacola Beach for a day before starting to head east, back toward home.

Photo of Lauren with van in Pensacola
Unfiltered van life, complete with messy bed and dirty clothes bag hanging out the back.

On the last day of this short adventure, we passed a sign for Florida Caverns State Park, which is something we’ve had on our to-do list since we found out it existed last September. A cave in Florida seemed impossible to us, since you can practically dig six inches underground and hit water in a lot of the state, but yeah, it’s a real thing.

In terms of the types of cave structures we saw, it reminded us a lot of Carlsbad Caverns, although on a much smaller scale. To access the caverns, you have to pay a small tour fee for each person in your party (in addition to the very inexpensive, per-car park entrance fee) for a 50-minute guided tour. There is no option to explore on your own. Overall, it was totally worth it.

Photo of Florida Caverns State Park
The “Round Room” in Florida Caverns is equipped with the most extravagant lighting setup of all the formations. Prints of this image are available in our art shop.

After another 3-hour drive from the caverns, and we were back home again.

I’m really not sure what tomorrow holds, but it seems like every day we’re doing more of what we want and less of what’s expected of us. If you’re interested in something similar, check out our Financial Roadmap, and get a few ideas of how you could make it happen in your own way.

— Steven

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