Accidentally Unretired

Telling people “I accidentally retired” usually gets a chuckle, but it’s actually pretty spot-on. I fully expected to go back to work once Stephanie started grad school (because what else was I gonna do?), but I never did, and now here I am, five years later. I may need to retire that quip however, because 2023 sure seemed like the year I accidentally unretired. It all started with a humble Craigslist ad that I posted just over a year ago, offering to help people with their DIY projects—for free…

My offer didn’t exactly receive a groundswell of attention. In fact I only ended up working one gig for free, and just before taking off the guy slipped me $25 “for gas”. Meanwhile I kept an eye open for ads from people looking for help. After responding to one that seemed up my alley (the title read: Need helper in Pacific Grove yard clean up some digging [sic]), and hearing nothing back for several weeks, I got a text on Christmas asking if I was available the next day. Stephanie was scheduled to work the 26th, so yes, yes I was! He offered to pay me…and I kept mum about my ad. Turns out earning someone’s gratitude by doing work that directly helps them while also earning a little scratch in the process is a pretty intoxicating cocktail. Thus the “I’m not looking to be paid” line in my original ad eventually fell by the wayside.

Here’s a screenshot of its latest incarnation, circa December 2023:

Screenshot of my 'Need help with your landscaping or renovation project?' Craigslist ad, circa December 2023

I was actively job-seeking in parallel, and even went through a few interviews, but for one reason or another, they didn’t pan out. Yet rather than disappointment, in each case I was flooded by a sense of relief, as though my future had been returned to me, unharmed.

“Doing something you love on a schedule you can’t control can feel the same as doing something you hate. Psychologists call it ‘reactance’” —The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel

That said, I still had nothing to do between the end of December and the end of February—when I scored my first paid gig in response to my ad. Well, not exactly nothing. For about a week in early February I did a stint with a parking logistics company at the PGA tournament in Pebble Beach. I made what felt to me (after four years with no income) like a wad of cash for not much actual work, but it was also very boring work—so not a particularly great remedy for my boredom.

Justin as a parking lot attendant
Cosplaying as a parking lot attendant

My fortunes (in both senses of the word) finally started to turn at the end of March. I received two inquiries from people who found my Craigslist ad intriguing, both of whom remain regular clients to this day. I also responded to an ad for a roofing gig with a DIY homebuilder in Santa Cruz, which was great due its semi-regular nature (I ended up putting in eight days over three weeks), but the hour-long commute was a major drag.

Justin as a roofer
Cosplaying as a roofer

April turned out be one of my highest earning months, though any delusions of grandeur were tempered by May, which was my lowest (not counting January’s $0). I got so bored I started to think that maybe “a real job” was the only solution. Mercifully, work returned with a vengeance in June. Between three existing clients and one new, I started to feel like “I actually had a job” (at least as a semi-professional weeder). In July, even though I set aside time for several short trips, I still ended up making two grand. At some point mid-year, I lost interest in continuing to look for gainful employment. Not because I was rolling in dough (I wasn’t), but because I was just busy enough to stave off boredom while also managing to preserve my autonomy. It’s a potent combination that, quite frankly, would be hard for any desk job to match.

Justin as a handyman
Cosplaying as a handyman

Though I did one small gig in August for a new client, all the others were for folks with whom I’d worked previously. September was the same. One new client came in via a referral, but otherwise, all my business came from existing clients. One of them, a college friend of my father’s, needed help rebuilding 60 feet of suburban shadowbox fencing. It was very much the sort of project, in terms of scope, scale, and variety, that I wish I had more opportunities to work on.

Finished shadowbox-style fence
I built a fence!

Well, I got my wish. Before decamping to France with Stephanie during the last 2 weeks of October, I ended up working almost entirely for one existing client on my largest project to date (in terms of time spent). I built over 40 feet of block retaining wall for a raised garden bed at the client’s rental property. I particularly enjoyed rerouting the 3 downspouts through the blocks, though using a gas-powered concrete saw to take down an old section of cinder-block wall was pretty cool too!

Block retaining wall for raised garden bed
I built a wall!

In November I worked on projects for an influx of new clients, including a yard clean-up that evolved into creating a 6×19′ parking space with patio pavers. I also eclipsed the net income high bar I’d inadvertently set back in April, and then managed to exceed it again in December, working primarily with existing clients plus a new one that I got via a referral. Having a client regularly reach out over several months is a pretty strong validation of my work—but having someone refer their close friends? That’s off the freaking charts!

Paver patio/parking space
I built a paver parking space!

The graph of my net income per month over 2023 shows the rollercoaster that was January through May before things somewhat stabilized. Part of that may have been seasonality (we had a very rainy winter and spring), but it also may have been my lack of regular clients. With the latter now in place, it’ll be interesting to see how the early part of 2024 plays out. I bucketed the parking logistics gig under Non-Landscaping because it was such an outlier compared to everything else I did, which, for lack of a better term, I called Landscaping, regardless of whether the work was strictly landscaping or not, e.g. roofing, handymanning, painting, even window-washing on occasion, etc.

Net Income per month for 2023

An annual report wouldn’t be complete without an income statement. Conveniently it’s both simple to convey and relatively modest, i.e., I’m not claiming to be “pulling in high six-figures per month, and you can too 🫵!” So I hope it avoids any appearance of being gauche or self-aggrandizing. Since I already had the tools I needed (or used ones provided by the client), at first my only real outlay was $5 per month for the Craigslist ad (captured under Advertising). But eventually, for certain clients and certain types of projects, I started procuring the landscaping materials they needed (captured under Supplies). I used my personal credit card for these, which I don’t use for much else, but in December I decided it was time to level up and apply for a business credit card, which has an annual fee (captured under Fees).

Income Statement
(for the year ended December 31, 2023)
Landscaping 27,408
Non-Landscaping 1,420
Gross Profit 28,828
Advertising 65
Fees 13
Supplies 4,540
Total Expenses 4,618
Net Income 24,210

Looking forward, I have no business plan or specific goals, I’m just going to continue doing what I like, preferably outdoors, and seeing where it takes me.


Robert Schanafelt

Hey Justin! Funny, I was literally just wondering what you were up to this week. It’s great to hear how much you’re enjoying yourself… and it’s reflected in your writing and your smile. Hope you and Stephanie are doing great. Best regards, Robert

Sara Baronian

I couldn’t wait- I just had to stat reading! It’s so fun hearing about how strategic you are about quelling your boredom. And with such intentional analysis. We hope to make it your way soon. Include a picture of your beautiful wife in the next update! Love to see both your faces :) Xoxo

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