Pension, Schmension! Retire on Your Own Terms
At the beginning of your financial life, there are plenty of traps laid out to bite you. In all probability, you were raised by financially unskilled parents, meaning you picked up deadly habits like buying automatic-transmission trucks on credit and commuting enormous distances in them. All while thinking you are living a perfectly reasonable life – and simultaneously wondering why it’s so hard to get ahead these days.
If you don’t get trapped by adopting the habits of your parents, you still might get eaten by any other number of demons including student loan debt, borrowing money on credit cards, or an addiction to convenience.
A few people are lucky or skilled enough to avoid all of this, and they enjoy lives of happy moderation, living below their means and saving a reasonable amount. Only to fall into another trap which awaits at the end of their working careers: the “one more year” syndrome or other problems with knowing when to quit.
After many years or decades devoted to selling the majority of their waking hours to an employer, these poor people lack the knowledge or bravery to set themselves free, and end up sentencing themselves to decades of additional unnecessary repetitive work.
You would be shocked at how many emails arrive in Mr. Money Mustache’s mailbox with this general theme, and it is high time we address it, using this recent example to illustrate:
Comments: Dear MMM,
I have just learned that my job is likely to end next year. I love my job (professor at a university, but my department is being phased out) and was planning to stay until age 65, which would be 9 more years. I am a single mom with a daughter who will be going to college soon.
I have a vested pension which is supposed to pay 40,000/year when I turn 65, but the pension is seriously underfunded so I am not sure I can count on it. While I have made some significant financial errors (buying a house right before the crash), I have also always saved some of my income. I have 600,000 in retirement accounts (mostly 403(b)). I also have 300,000 in non-retirement savings. I bought my house with cash, but it needs some major repairs.
The problem? I cannot believe I will be okay if I go ahead and retire. I have had a paycheck for 40 years (and been fortunate to have great jobs, including my years as an academic that allowed plenty of flexibility for family and travel). I have always felt “safe” from having money in the bank, employer subsidized health insurance, etc.
Help! How do I make this leap? How do I find the right place to live? (I’m only in this town for the job.) Please persuade me it will all be okay so I can start sleeping again.
Waking up at 4 a.m.
We need to start with a double congratulations. First on your unusual saving ability (many US workers end up with minimal net worth by the time they reach their mid-50s). And secondly, on your impending layoff! Without that, you might never have been shaken out of your comfortable working trance and forced to step out and do what you are now financially very well prepared to do: Begin the self-directed stage of your life!
While it will be obvious to regular readers that your savings are way more than you need, let’s cover the basics quickly anyway:
To retire, you need passive income to cover your annual living expenses, with a reasonable safety margin.
- Your living expenses, while not stated, are probably pretty low since you own a mortgage-free house.
- On your remaining assets ($900,000), you can plan to withdraw about 4% per year for an indefinite period. This should provide you with about $36,000 per year of spending money.
On top of this $36,000, you have the amazing benefits of:
- A high probability that your pension plan will pay out at least a significant part of the planned $40,000/year, starting only 9 years from now.
- Social Security payments which will also be available in full beginning at age 67.
- Medicare health insurance coverage beginning at age 65
- The chance to move to a less expensive location, extracting more equity from your house
This is an enormous safety margin, which means that even if you spend, say, $200,000 of your current savings on things like helping your daughter, house repairs, moving, losing money in financial crashes, or anything else that life throws at you, you are still more than prepared for the 10-12 years between now and the pension years.
So not only should you sleep well at night, you should ask yourself if you would like to quit working before the department lays you off next year. You are set for life, and if you’re ready, you should set out and enjoy life.. NOW! Since you’re thinking of moving to a new city, you can make that part of your adventure. I can think of at least a dozen low-cost cities that I’m fond of, and the readers of this blog could list many more.
Since it sounds like you enjoy your work, this might not mean leaving the academic world. It just means that your actions will no longer be directed by the need to earn a paycheck. The money-driven phase of your life is complete.
OK, maybe this example was too easy. I also get questions from teachers in their late 20s, asking things like
We are half way to saving for early retirement, investing heavily, and managing out first rental house. But my wife’s school board offers a generous pension if she works at least 20 years in the district – which means 13 years more work. What should we do? Is it stupid to sacrifice a solid pension by leaving early?
Absolutely not! It not stupid to walk out on a pension. What is stupid is staying in a job that you don’t love, when you no longer need the money.
All of this hinges on the concept of “Enough”. It’s a tricky one to grasp if the television has done its job in raising you to be insatiable. But if you work through your own bullet points like the ones above, and you’ve got enough, then dude, trust me, you can go ahead and quit.
When you take early retirement, you are almost always walking away from a whole bunch of money. Salary. Benefits. Bonuses. Stock options. I’ve often recounted how I’ve “lost” least a million dollars of potential income since quitting in 2005. Even now, I am forced to turn down more work opportunities almost every week, and Mrs. Money Mustache does the same. Early retirees seem to have a way of attracting unwanted work opportunities, almost like the casual man who walks into a pub with no desire to hit on women. The employers can almost smell your freedom, and it makes them want to offer you additional money. But unless the work offered is your true love, you will gracefully decline.
We are deliberately sacrificing extra savings and security in our distant futures, for continued free time right now. We’re throwing away the equivalent of many good pensions. Oooo. Big deal.
To gain the ability to quit your job, you have to learn to lose your addiction to artificial security. You may think you’re building up additional financial strength, but really you’re just indulging a psychological weakness.
More money beyond the reasonable guidelines noted above does not make your life better. But spending an extra 10 years working a mundane job, setting the alarm clock and droning away on the conference calls because you are afraid to quit does make your life worse, unless that is truly what you were born to do.
Ding, Dong! That’s Mr. Money Mustache ringing your doorbell. “Hey, rich person! We’re all out here playing in the sun! Fold up that laptop and come on out, for I’ve got the grill going and the cooler is full of beer.”
There is nothing scary out here in the world of early retirement. It only takes a finite amount of money, and everything is going just fine for those of us who took the plunge. And you’ll be fine too.
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