“If everybody retired early like those Mustachians”, the lament goes, “there would be nobody left to do the work.”
We need people to do the hard, dirty necessary chores that keep society running. And we need other people to keep the innovation going, since technologies and ideas don’t invent themselves.
And besides, even on an individual level it is a bad idea. What about those studies that show life expectancy drops very quickly for those who retire? What about those of us who love our jobs? What would we do all day if we didn’t have to work?
Luckily for all of us, there is a simple answer to all of this:
I propose that you keep right on working well after your retirement date, and in an ideal world you keep working right up until the last day of your life. Only then and with the satisfaction of countless decades of doing your best, is it really worthwhile to take that final rest.
If this sounds like a prescription for living hell, the problem is not with my proposal. It’s with your definition of what “work” really is. The problem is likely that you are doing work because you need the money, rather than for the joy of getting the most out of each of your days. And there really is a better way.
How “Retired” People Work
These days, I seem to know quite a few financially independent people. They come out of the woodwork once you start writing a blog about the idea, and we end up keeping in touch because we have so much in common. They are fun friends to have, plus it is handy to have someone with whom to share a mountain bike ride on a Monday, or beers on a Wednesday.
According to their own definition, they no longer need to work for money because their investments cover their (usually below average) spending. And yet, at the present moment almost all of them are still doing things that look like working. A couple of them are still charging away at expanding their companies. Others are still productive at writing books or investing and helping others start companies of their own. Even I get accused of not being retired on the grounds of either carpentry or writing. But there’s a reason behind all of this work-like activity, and it’s not money.
The Rule of Free
For the first few years after retirement, I found myself continuing old money habits without questioning them. Like everyone, I’m way more habit-bound than I like to admit. And besides, if money is good, then more must be better, right?
The problem was that these habits were costing me some freedom. When opportunities came up to earn little chunks of income, I would tend to go out of my way to accept them. When spending decisions came up, I would stress unnecessarily to optimize each one. I found myself agonizing over whether to add a $14.50 order of delicious Baingan Barta to the order of Indian take-out, when the bill was already approaching $40.
Habits like these are very healthy when you are still earning your independence: it is the double-sided optimization that gets you to financial freedom 30-40 years ahead of everyone else, so the reward on effort is very high. However, once you have enough money, getting even more doesn’t do you much good at all. So once the job was done, I wanted to put the theoretical freedom into practice. I forced myself to adopt two new rules:
I try to make all spending decisions as if the price were $0.00
And I make all work and income decisions as if the wage were $0.00
But doesn’t this lead to infinite consumption and zero work? For the Beginner Consumer, most definitely. But by the time you are truly ready for early retirement, these guidelines should lead to almost exactly the same life that you already have. The key is that both factors become magically self-regulating if you understand what truly makes you happy.
I’ve learned that more stuff does not bring more happiness – as you add belongings, your stuff just starts to own you. Even upgrading to higher quality versions of existing stuff doesn’t help. I could swap my 10-year-old Scion xA for a new Tesla P85D with just the spare change in my wallet at this point, but this upgrade would probably make me slightly less happy, because I’d have to watch the beautiful machine fading in the hot sun and being shat upon by birds, while I felt guilt over not driving it enough to justify the price.
But buying tools that let you accomplish things can be much more satisfying than buying luxury toys. For me, this means physical power tools, but also tools like a functional office, a nice kitchen, and good shoes. So I don’t skimp on the things that help me get more done every day. An upgraded car doesn’t qualify because it would only help me accomplish more driving, which is not on my bucket list.
On the work side of the equation, the philosophy is reversed. My best days are the ones where I accomplish something truly difficult, preferably in both mental and physical realms. And my worst days are those that I just spend sitting around. So I’ve learned that work is an incredibly powerful source of happiness. The key is that it must be creative, social and engaging work that brings you towards a purpose you believe in.
So if a friend asks me to spend a day helping him haul steel beams and welding them into his foundation so he can resume progress on a dream house, I’ll be right over. Although I usually get paid for work like this, I’d also do it for free. But when an advertising company hints at a seven-figure offer to buy this blog, I have no interest at all. After all, would I give Mr. Money Mustache away for free?
When you take money out of the equation, it is much easier to make decisions that really bring you a better life.
So Here’s What Would Really Happen if More People Pursued MMM-Style Early Retirement
I find that when people earn their freedom from money constraints, they usually don’t stop working. Instead they start doing their best work. Looking at many of society’s highest achievers right now, the world leaders and founders of the most productive companies, I see mostly people who have already made it. And yet are still working because it means something to them.
Early retirement, according to this new definition, does not mean quitting work, even while it may well mean quitting your job. It means opting out of the bullshit portion of your work. The commuting, the politics, the production of inferior products just because your boss has found a profitable niche to exploit. When used correctly, a sizeable ‘stash can help you become a more ethical person.
Early-retired Doctors might set up smaller practices which operate without any pressure for profit optimization, and without patience for insurance company shenanigans. They might treat their medical staff better than the larger operations do.
Early-retired Attorneys might refuse all cases that are based on questionable ethics, and do only work that actually helps somebody.
Google engineers who retire early might still work or contract part-time, or feel compelled to create completely new inventions with their newly freed minds. If some of these inventions grow big and end up being acquired right back into Google, it’s just another dividend of early retirement and the cycle will begin anew.
How would you run your own life, with a continuing desire to create but no immediate need to make the next mortgage payment?
Early retirement also leaves much more room for family life, because you lose your fear of falling behind. Sure, I’m currently far less “productive” in conventional business terms than I would be if wasn’t a full-time Dad. In fact, before beginning this project I granted myself 20 years of slack time, just to make sure work would not take over. But who cares about conventional business productivity? There will be plenty of time in the second half of my life to embark on bigger things.
And there is no such thing as skills going obsolete: A true Early Retiree expands his or her network of skills and knowledge every day in unforeseen ways. As the years go by, the friendships and business opportunities only multiply, whether you have time to capitalize on them or not.
The net of all this is that you probably have less to fear about post-retirement life than you thought. It also means you’ll probably use less of that war chest you have been amassing, because your energy (and therefore income) will only multiply over time. You have decades to build, accumulate and contribute after you make the jump. So make your plan with a heavy dose of optimism.
There is nothing to lose and everything to gain from getting as many people on this train as possible, including yourself.
I try to explain the concept of FIRE to people at work but usually get weird looks because this is such an unfathomable concept. I will henceforth direct them to this post.