Are You Obsessed with Early Retirement?
I was definitely alone among my coworkers – When still employed, I discussed the idea occasionally with friends at the office, and the idea was met with universal rejection: “Oh, you’ll never have enough money”.. “I like the idea, but my wife would never go for that kind of lifestyle”, “That may work for some, but I’ve got kids and/or a chronic health condition requiring expensive insurance”.
So when I became Mr. Money Mustache earlier this year, my eyes were opened quite a bit. I was pleased to find this whole community of people, discussing exactly the same things I had wondered about myself. There was even a whole established set of traditions and goals, with concepts like “your number” and acronyms like FI, FIRE, SWR, and YMOYL. In the olden days, if someone wrote “Oh, my friends won’t get to FI as quickly as me”, I’d assume they were talking about some sort of race to Florida.
Along with this education about the customs of the early retirement community, I also learned about some of its problems. The one I found most intriguing was the fact that many financial independence seekers are obsessed with early retirement, almost desperately counting down the days until they reach the wealth level they have determined they need to retire.
So I thought we could compare notes on the matter – those who have already crossed the threshold and those who are on their way. Is there anything we can tell each other? Any advice from us Wise Old Retired people that might make the journey less arduous? Any tips or traps that occur once you cross the threshold?
To do my own part, I’ll give you a list of the things I’ve noticed about the early retirement lifestyle so far. I’ll start with the fun parts, which would probably be labeled as “Financial Independence Porn” by the reader/commenter I like to call Wolf.
Things that were pretty much how I expected them:
- You really do stop using your alarm clock, and adopt a deep belly laugh to be used on people who ask you to be somewhere before 9:00 in the morning. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting up early to accomplish something fun or useful, but in general, great productivity becomes something that can wait until after a great breakfast.
- Vacations do happen much more than they used to, even though you probably don’t keep track. As a worker, I felt like Mr. Executive for getting four weeks of annual paid vacation. This year, I feel like we haven’t traveled much, but adding it up we are at about ten weeks, and are just about to head out for another trip this weekend. Similarly, reading, eating well, exercising properly, and other things you thought you’d do when you have enough time, really do come true.
- The great feelings about not having to commute and deal with office politics or performance reviews or boring work really do stick around. I thought I loved my job at the time, but after quitting I didn’t miss it for a day, and I still frequently think about things like moron-laden conference calls and think, “WHEW! I am GLAD I do not have to do that shit any more.
Things that were Not as I expected they would be:
- You’ll still do work – LOTS of work, in very unpredictable areas:
As a person who is motivated enough to break the mold to become wealthy and leave a cushy job very early, AND an MMM reader to boot, you have a naturally curious mind. You like to read, and you are good at getting things done. When you quit your job, you’re not going to just idly sit back and consume for the rest of your life. You might take a few months off, but at some point you will need to produce something again. It might be art or music or writing, or working with people in some way, but I’d be quite surprised to hear of a self-made early retiree that stops doing anything at all. The thing about doing things like this, however, is that it is often labeled “work”, and you end up getting paid for some of it – like it or not. Because this happens so frequently, many early retirees (myself and the Artist Formerly Known As Mr. Early Retirement Extreme included) find that they don’t use their retirement savings nearly as much as they expected. In fact, they end up contributing to them more over time rather than drawing on them.
- Work and Activity level varies greatly from month to month:
Our ancient ancestors experienced lives of great variation: enormous hunts, periods of discovery and invention, and death-defying migrations.. mixed in with times of great feasting and laziness and of course plenty of famine. In the modern working environment, things are very different because everything is modeled on an industrial production system with smoothly flowing inputs and outputs. I believe this is a somewhat unnatural role for humans, especially at the ridiculous level of 40 hours per week. You can sometimes approximate the restful times by slacking off at work. But on a salary this can be stressful because deep inside you know you are doing less than your best and perhaps lying about your productivity or cheating yourself out of a potential raise. In retirement, there are times where a project has you up all night, or where you work harder on something than even a whipped office worker would do. But there are other times when you have very little going on, and you accomplish much less. It’s much like an expanded version of the weekends of a non-retired person. These lazy times are the most dangerous, because if you aren’t challenged, you’ll start to feel tired and dissatisfied with yourself, which will make you not feel like starting anything challenging, which can become a downward spiral that ends with you sitting endlessly at a computer playing video games, sporting pale skin and skinny arms and a growing set of love handles and man boobs*. How do you handle your leisure time right now?
- You still end up being “just a little bit too busy” much of the time:
There’s always something better that you should be doing with your time, and no matter how hard you try to work at things on your to-do list, you will still find that you suck. Because of this, you will sometimes find yourself turning down social events or vacation opportunities, or missing out on things that you wanted to get done, because you don’t feel you have time to do them. Time management is still a challenge, even when you have more time to work with because your job is gone.
- You don’t have to retire to start having a good life:
For every corporate worker who hates his job, there is a SWAMI like the MMM reader named Poorplayer who often offers wise sermons in the comments of this blog. If you had a job that you enjoyed as much as he loves being a professor, or as much as I love building things, you’d never need to quit it. So one option you have is to switch jobs immediately – start searching, send out resumes and make calls and use social networking, and be surprised at how much power you already have over your own situation. Even if you’re totally convinced that sticking it out in your $120,000 office job for two more years is worth it because it gets you independent so much earlier, you can still start making other changes. Try to go part-time or work from home. Get a new position in the same company. Write a list of everything you’ll do when you retire – and then start doing some of those things right away instead.
- The Biggest part of Financial Independence is not the Size of your ‘Stash – it’s the size of your Frugality Muscle:
The more expensive your lifestyle is, the longer you have to work to build up an enormous investment account. Compounding this effect, this usually means you have an addiction to big spending and may be a bit of a fearful wuss about ever having to spend less. People with this fear obsess endlessly over the “safe withdrawal rate”, and select one that guarantees that regardless of the timing of future stock market returns or recessions/depressions, they will never have to decrease their spending and in fact will always raise their spending along with headline inflation numbers each year.
- I suggest you take the opposite approach: acknowledge that you are in full control of your material desires and your spending, and that you can adjust to whatever life throws your way. If the price of oil skyrockets, you’ll adjust your life to buy fewer oil-intensive products. If the boom years of the late 1990s return, you’ll quietly set aside the gains for future use. If someone important to you needs your help, you might cheerfully decide to cut your spending in half for several years until you’re done helping them. Changes like these are simply another form of challenge, and challenge is something that you thrive on, rather than cringe away from, due to the earlier point about the man boobs.
- On a deeper level, Mrs. Money Mustache and I both found that we discovered new things about life from the very process of consuming less – things that we never would have learned if we had maintained the high incomes and spending rate of our peers.
To bring it all back to a single strand of Mustache: I believe that the best cure for Early Retirement Obsession is to start acting more like a retired person right now. The further you can push your boundaries out of the current comfort (or discomfort) zone, and into the life you envision for yourself as a retired person, the more you’ll start changing into the futuristic person you want to be. And share your thoughts and questions with all of us as you go along.
* This is obviously just the male side of it.. perhaps a female Mustachian can comment on the Lady equivalent of what happens when you get lazy and stop accomplishing anything.
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