As the new year begins, it's customary to reminisce about our lives. As we fast approach the beginning of our 21st year of retirement, we wonder what the future might bring.

During one of our private two-hour lunches, Akaisha brought up the topic: "Was retiring early at the age of 38 worth it?" Wow! What a question. We each have had our share of personal ups and downs in life, both before and after we retired. It was a subject worthy of discussion.

What if?
If we had stayed in our careers and put in 20 years of service in the corporate world, we wouldn't have retired until 2006 at the age of 54, a mere four years ago. Still, this would have qualified us for "early retirement" by most definitions. Assuming things would have been the same, financially we would have been much better off back then had we continued working. With a house and our cars paid for, living near a beautiful beach with great weather in California, a corporate pension, plenty of stock market assets and cash, we would likely be wanting for nothing.

Health-wise, who knows? The stress of working high-pressure jobs most likely would have taken a toll on our physical health. And two decades later with the aches, pains, and caution that aging brings, would we still be as adventurous and willing to try new things in retirement? And then there is the question of whether we would still be together. Many of our friends are on their second marriages, and this could have happened to us as well.

However, if we had stayed at work until 2006 and therefore had a bigger portfolio to travel in style, have the good life, and start "livin' large," we would have been sitting pretty -- until the markets took one heck of a fall in 2008. With the markets all suffering huge drops, the shingles of our financial house would have been heartily shaken, making us ponder if we did the right thing by leaving work early. Is there ever the perfect time to retire? And how do you know?

Experiences vs. assets
Traveling the world for the past 20 years, we have garnered a wide range of experiences and have tested our mettle. How do you put a price on first-hand education and 20 years of happiness living around the globe?

Since we stepped out of the corporate box in 1991, we have sailed the Caribbean, lived on exotic islands, and drove an RV around the Western United States. We've learned skills such as Thai massage, scuba diving in the West Indies, and building tennis courts in the heart of Mexico. For years at a time, we have lived in Asia and Mexico and traveled through both extensively. And this wasn't a tour or a two-week vacation, but getting down and dirty with the locals, many times being invited into their homes for meals or to spend the night.

When the call came to do end-of-life care for our parents, we had the time, the energy, and the patience to do so full time. That's something we could never have done while holding down stressful jobs.

We consider ourselves to be global ambassadors, living everywhere and nowhere. Our style is to dive into local cultures like a roaming, self-generated Peace Corps, putting in thousands of volunteer hours teaching English, business skills, and sporting activities, leaving the place better than we found it. And the learning is not just for them. Our maid is teaching Billy authentic Mexican cuisine, and both of us continue to explore digital gadgetry as well as improve our foreign language abilities and travel techniques. Much of this we photograph and journal on our website, Opportunities to help or mentor others are everywhere, and the reward is much more gratifying than a paycheck.

After two decades of retirement, suffice it to say that no amount of money can replace the accumulation of knowledge, skills, and personal confidence that our adventures have given us.

So here we are getting ready to launch into our third decade of living this lifestyle to the fullest, tasting flavors from exotic locations and ready to meet life's challenges. While our finances might not reflect the substance of those who continued to work, no one can take away the dance we've danced.

The future is always filled with surprises whether one is working or retired. Life with its challenges never stops. However, we can rest assured that at age 58, we have had one heck of a ride over the past 20 years, and we eagerly look forward to our next decade of upcoming journeys and adventures.

So was retiring at the age of 38 worth it? We can only say a resounding YES!

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Fool contributors Billy and Akaisha Kaderli write regularly for the Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter. They retired in 1991 from the brokerage and restaurant businesses to a life of international travel. Visit their website at The Fool has a disclosure policy.