2020 was our first full year in retirement and everything went mostly according to plan. Ho hum, just another year in the books. I’m kidding, obviously. Instead, our resolve was tested, both mentally and financially. We learned way more than we ever wanted to know about coronaviruses and how they spread. And we received a stark reminder of all of the things that we normally take for granted, like freedom of movement.
A Bit Of Normalcy Before SHTF
The year started off normal enough. We spent the first two weeks in Chiang Mai, Thailand after enjoying Christmas and New Year’s celebrations there. In mid-January, we made our way to Hanoi, Vietnam for the start of a planned 3 month Vietnam tour. We enjoyed the Tet celebration, but otherwise didn’t love the time we spent in the capital. Hanoi was cold and the apartment we picked was not a great fit. There were a few different issues, but the overriding problem was that the shower never got hot. Cold showers in a cold house meant we had a lot of trouble warming up. The air quality was also poor much of the time.
From there we moved to Ha Long, where we took some great walks along the water and a boat tour of the gorgeous Ha Long Bay. This was also our first introduction to Coronavirus awareness and precautions. That seemed to fade quickly though, as we arrived in Hoi An a week later and aside from a few extra hand sanitizer bottles, everything seemed pretty normal. The weather warmed up and we hosted Katie’s mom and sister for a couple of weeks.
The Global Pandemic
The virus had other plans though. Our visitors had to cut their trip short in order to ensure they could make it back to the US. We moved to Danang shortly afterwards and it’s been nothing but a focus on COVID-19 since. We went through two COVID lockdowns, got a mandatory COVID test, and have had our travel plans put on indefinite hold due to COVID.
That made for another year that was mentally challenging. 2019 had us finding the courage to quit our jobs and ridding ourselves of all of our possessions. We had to learn how to be retired and how to live on the road. After 7 months abroad we were settling into our nomadic travel groove when all of the rules changed. We were back at square one, relearning to live retired life under completely different circumstances.
The lack of movement options meant that we were forced into a much more stable and monotonous existence. We went to the beach a lot and read more books. I’ve never been so tan in my life. We learned how to pass the time without having anything to do and sometimes without being able to leave the house. There were a lot of crossword puzzles and video games and TV binging. Our current apartment has a large dining table, so we were even able to buy and enjoy some jigsaw puzzles. I also recently revived my interest in playing D&D after a 3 decade long hiatus. (If anyone out there needs an addition to their party, hit me up.) But mostly, we’ve learned to develop more patience and accept that it’s okay to not be doing anything.
COVID was never allowed to spiral out of control in Vietnam, so aside from an initial lockdown and a second one a few months later, most everything is still functioning and somewhat normal. We wear masks whenever indoors, but otherwise day-to-day life is pretty much the same here. There’s little to no community transmission so our risk is very low. Almost everyone is still very cautious though, so we aren’t out there making any new friends. We spent the last half of the year living a regular, albeit somewhat isolated, retired existence.
That’s not to say that nothing happened. We were on hand to experience one of Danang’s worst rainy seasons on record. The month of October historically averages 25 inches of rainfall, which is crazy enough. But we almost doubled the long term average when we got drenched with 49 inches (1245 mm). That’s one month! One damp and rainy month. We also experienced our first ever typhoon, and rode out more than one during the rainy season that dropped all that moisture. During one of the wettest storms, our apartment flooded leaving us scrambling for new accommodations.
Travel Plans Thwarted
2020 was not our year when it came to travel planning. It seemed like whatever plans we made went awry. This started even before COVID travel restrictions took hold everywhere. We had a great plan to get from Ha Long to Hoi An, but due to fog and cancelled flights, we ended up having a travel adventure. That included a $50 cab ride, a nerve-wracking minibus ride, a random hotel room, and a rescheduled flight from a new city. Then when the COVID panic struck us, we were making somewhat frantic plans to leave Vietnam for somewhere more familiar that would let us stay for a longer term. The idea was to find some place where we could stop traveling before Vietnam forced us to leave when we didn’t want to.
We had flights to Penang that were cancelled after Malaysia issued a travel ban the day before we were scheduled to depart. We pivoted and bought flights to Taiwan leaving a day later, and they banned foreigner entry leaving those unusable. By default, we were staying in Danang but we were scared that we would be kicked out with only the US willing to accept us. Since that time however, Vietnam has greatly relaxed their restrictions on visa extensions, which is why we’re still here. We obviously couldn’t know that would happen when we were trying to flee.
Much later in the year, we secured Taiwan resident visas via their Gold Card Program. By this point, we knew Taiwan had been handling COVID very competently (like Vietnam) so it’s a good place to be. The visa is 3 years long, so we could stay there as long as we liked without worrying about monthly visa extensions. As we were making plans in mid-December to travel there, we learned that they changed their quarantine restrictions as of December 1. We were mentally prepared for a strict two week quarantine period, but the new rules meant that Katie and I would be required to quarantine separately. That made the idea of the isolation period much worse, so we scuttled those travel plans too. Add them to the pile.
It was a crazy year to be an investor too. If you simply looked at the year end results of the S&P 500 and its total return of 18%, you’d think it was a good, somewhat normal year. But of course, in between was the steepest drop in history fueled by Coronavirus panic. From February 19 to March 23, the S&P lost 33% of it’s value. This included a 12% single day loss. Even for people with a large bond component like us, that’s hard to swallow. We lost more on that one day than either of us had ever earned in a year of work! Conversely, we also gained nearly as much on other days. The volatility was nuts.
During this time, we were confined to a small dark apartment while watching our hard earned money evaporate on a daily basis. It would’ve been easy to succumb to panic and sell everything, but we stuck with our plan. Not only that, we rebalanced our portfolio by selling a large portion of bonds to buy stocks at the end of Q1. It felt pretty terrible at the time, like tossing money into the abyss. But having been investing for two decades now, I know that my feelings are worthless and that nobody knows which way the stock market is heading. This was confirmed with hindsight, as the stock market only climbed from there. The timing was complete luck but the mental fortitude to follow through with the plan was not.
Financially, this year was a definite success. One of the main impediments to a successful early retirement is encountering a poor sequence of returns early on. Our total investment portfolio grew by 16% after expenses, which were quite low. That combination of stock market growth and low spending bodes well for our longer term success. At the very least, it means we have a larger cushion to absorb the next crash.
Our 2020 grand total spending amount came in at $19,566. As expected, housing was our biggest expense at $6,286, but not by much. Food and drink followed closely behind at $5,550. Normally I would expect transportation to be third, but nothing was ordinary about this year. Instead it’s actually visa fees at $2,042, as it’s costing us around $200/mo to stay in Vietnam. Luckily for us, rents are depressed around Danang due to a lack of travelers, so our rent payments are discounted by at least that amount. We did still travel some, mostly early in the year, so we spent $894 on flights, taxis, and buses.
The rest of our expenses were as follows. Household spending at $798, which includes things like sunscreen, toilet paper, lotion, allergy meds, etc. We spent $560 on clothes and shoes and a measly $104 on entertainment, almost all of which was a Ha Long Bay cruise. We spent $41 at the dentist. Our monthly bills for Netflix, travel insurance, mail service, cell phone, VPN, blog fees, and the MLB.tv package totaled $1778.
We had a few miscellaneous expenses that don’t fit in any other category totaling $728. In December we bought a ukulele to fiddle around on. Then we bought a hard-sided suitcase to make sure that we could get it and a yoga mat to Taiwan (before that trip was cancelled). So I guess that means that we’re no longer travelers with just one backpack each. We now have a suitcase we can drag around as well. Although we haven’t actually *traveled* with it, so we haven’t officially become suitcase travelers yet.
There’s also almost $800 in completely one-off spending. Normally I would just add in the $580 in Taiwan visa fees to a future Taiwan spending report, but it doesn’t seem like we’ll make it anytime soon, so I’m including them here for now. I also am including the flight we bought to Penang for $207 that got cancelled as I was only able to get a future flight credit. I’m skeptical that we’ll be able to use that before it expires, so it’s most likely a sunk cost. I might as well just recognize it now instead of carrying it forward. If any of this changes, I’ll make the correcting journal entry in the future.
The only other notable thing we did was make friends with a strange looking rooster that we pass while on our walk to the furthest grocery store that we frequent. And that kind of sums up the current state of our nomadic lives. Our travel destinations are grocery stores within walking distance and our new friends are birds. I call him Cankles.