Early retirement is a LIE

You’re probably reading the title and thinking “Early retirement is a lie” – she is so right! No one can retire early because it’s simply not possible. Well, I firmly believe it is financially possible, but calling it “early retirement” is a lie. You might call me the “Early Retirement Police” for saying this, but I don’t care.

Early retirement gets such great hype because everyone in America is burnt out from working too many hours at jobs they don’t like and not having enough of a gap between their earnings and their spending for them to be able to career change, so they start searching “How do I retire early”. Their goal isn’t to do nothing for the rest of their lives – their general goal is to do something else without needing to worry about money.

Why do I say early retirement is a lie then? If you had a larger gap between your spending and your earnings for many years at the point where you decided you wanted to change careers, what would you be doing? Well, if you have a healthy mindset around money where it is meant to be spent at some point and not hoarded forever, then you’d probably use some of your savings to allow yourself time to figure out what to do next and change careers.

People love saving for early retirement because you only have to save for N years and then you’re done! You can run away from your career that you hate so badly! We love time limits on anything. How often does the instructor at a fitness class say “You can do anything for 10 seconds, just 10 more seconds!” That’s exactly what saving for early retirement is – waiting on N more years to be able to live the life you want forever. It sure sounds pretty shiny. There’s a catch though – you need to be able to stick it out in a job you don’t like for those N years. You know who gets the best raises? The best bonuses? The highest performers. I don’t know about you, but if I hate my job, I’m pretty terrible at it.

If I love my job, I’m going to be the most badass rockstar you will ever meet.

I want to live a life where I am the most badass rockstar you will ever meet. I don’t want to stay in a job I don’t like just so I can save tons of money and retire early.

I live in a place I love. I have an amazing husband. We live in a condo that we love. We have an amazing community here in this place that we live. We have great options for exercising in ways that we both enjoy. We cook and eat delicious food.

What’s missing? The intellectual stimulation from a career I love. I know I’m not going to get that from retiring early and being outdoorsy all the time. We need balance in our lives and unfortunately our North American high-powered careers suck at that.

The reality of early retirement is that it is a career shift with a large nest egg so that you have the freedom to pursue a lower income lifestyle.

If you’re a white collar career driven person in today’s world, you are not going to want to give up the mental stimulation that your career brings you. You are going to find some other way to get that mental stimulation. Some people in the ER blogging community derive that new mental stimulation from writing and other creative pursuits. Have you noticed though that only high income people pursue hardcore early retirement while lower income people gasp change careers?

Maybe the people who were in lower income careers are on to something.

Why are we holding onto the notion that we need to have the higher income in order to be happy? Shooting for early retirement means that you’re still holding onto that notion. Why not take a lower paying job that will bring you more joy in life?

Life is not about money – it’s about joy. Sometimes money is a tool to get you there, a dangerous tool that you can wield beyond its good.

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54 thoughts on “Early retirement is a LIE

  1. Ooooh I was right. Definitely glad I read this! Thanks for sharing Leigh! I certainly hate my job at the moment, and it’s definitely one reason I’m working so hard towards FI, but most of the reasons I hate my job have to do with the fact it’s a job. I have to get up early, be around people I don’t like, and do things I don’t care about.

    Call me selfish, but I want to work on the things I want to do. My passion would be to be able to go back and work at a kid’s camp over the summers again. To ski on a random Tuesday. To be able to attend my nephew’s birthday party if it should fall on a weekday. I can’t do those things when constrained by a typical white collar career.

    • I’m sort of in the middle of where you and Gwen are. Ultimately, I think I’d be satisfied in a different form of 9-5 because I crave structure. I assume it would pay less than what I’m making now, just because I associate hihg income with low of stress and expectations of putting in more than 40 hours per week. But who knows. There’s also the possibility that I just don’t like having a job period. So maybe the lower-paying route leaves me feeling the same as I feel right now. But for me, it’s not worth powering through to reach FIRE number. That would be another 8-10 years. That’s a long time. I’m all for delayed gratification, but as you said, Leigh, maybe the lower income career folks are onto something? I’d prefer optimal happiness during career and in retirement, so I’ll try that route first.

      I don’t even hate my job really, what I hate is the state of my current home life and this living location doesn’t seem conducive to making improvements there. And I can’t take the job elsewhere. So, try something else it is.

      • I crave structure too, which is why I’m not sure that full-time freelancing would work for me. But I also kind of love setting my own schedule. So we will see how life plays out.

        It sounds like you don’t love where you live, TJ. I agree with your conclusion to try other places. Sometimes finding the right job can help you satisfice to live in a place you don’t love – I know nicoleandmaggie have done this for their job.

    • I have been there too, in a job I hate. Doing jobs I enjoy more though has shown me that it is possible to find a job I like and that with no job, structure, or mental stimulation of any kind, I will go bonkers. I love getting up early ;) I’m trying to convince my husband that we should work on a mobile app together and then maybe that will eventually be a source of income so that we could spend longer visiting with family and traveling rather than being tied down to one location. The truth though is that we love where we live and don’t love long-term travel.

  2. I kind of like having enough money to live forever without ever needing to work (or hustle, or blog, etc) ever again. :) I never had a high paying job (unless you consider $69k high paying for a person with a law degree and an engineering undergrad), and found my last job occasionally enjoyable. Just never liked the rigid schedule or the BS.

    These days I write a new blog post when I have something on my mind, or feel the creative juices flowing. Many days those juices do not flow, and I enjoy other pursuits.

    I think you have a great point that you’ll probably want to do something productive or intellectually stimulating in early retirement. It’s empirically documented – I can’t think of many 30-something early retirees that sit in a rocking chair sipping sweet tea all day waiting to watch the sunset. Instead, they are out doing things. Converting a van for stealth RVing. Planning the next big epic trip. Learning a foreign language. Yes, writing a blog. Learning to code (I’ve tried off and on). Finding a new hobby. Improving their writing or art. Volunteering/mentoring.

    • I’m definitely not a huge fan of the BS. I do admit that having enough money to live forever without ever needing to work again is kind of cool, but a huge reach for many people. What type of engineering did you do again? I love doing fun coding projects in my spare time :)

      • Worst paid engineering ever apparently. Civic engineering.

        Yes, ER is a huge reach for a wide swath of the population that earns a modest wage, especially if it’s a household with only one income earner. Adding kids to the mix with a sole income earner and low income stretches the odds further.

        What saddens me is all the high income people that can’t manage to save much at all and then bemoan the impossibility of early retirement.

        • I absolutely agree with you about the high income people who can’t manage to save much at all and then bemoan the impossibility of early retirement. It is definitely not financially impossible – I just doubt that most people who enjoy white collar jobs will also be satisfied with a life of leisure.

  3. Love this. If I reach financial independence in the next 10 years I’m hoping to learn another language or two, take painting classes, go on medical mission trips, baking and cooking classes before trying my hand at starting a company with a couple of ideas I have. But I don’t want to give up vacations with my family or watching sports on cable to hoard up money a few years sooner. Also calling BS on the retired millionaire bloggers whose only charity work is writing on their blog to inspire people. I’m hoping more people in the personal finance world will invest their skills into making the world a better place and helping people truly in need.

    • Some of those ideas sound like hobbies that you could incorporate a small number of into your current life rather than waiting for financial independence! In past posts, I’ve discussed how I plan to increase the % of my gross income that I donate as my reliance on paid work reduces. I think a lot of the PF blogosphere is too big on hoarding money for personal use. And nope – I’m not going to give up vacations to hoard up money a few years sooner. Vacations are so key to maintaining one’s sanity ;)

      • Ugh you have no idea on the hobby forefront. I also want to learn to ride horseback well, never own but know how to shoot a gun, learn woodworking and photography. I’ve already mastered snowboarding, scuba diving and 1.5 musical instruments. I always tell my husband I will never be truly great at anything because I lack singular focus. It’s hard not to be able to pursue any of them right now because I’m in baby factory mode. I’ve been inspired by a few women though, and realize I can have it all, just not all at once. That’s so reassuring to me because I hope I will grow into all my self improvements by my 60s.

        • So many hobbies, not enough time! One of my friends would pick a single hobby to do, do it until they got bored of it, and then pick another hobby. Usually they would last one year or so at a particular hobby. Baby factory mode sounds like a great time to master photography – then you’ll be able to take excellent photos of any future children!

  4. Ha! I laugh as one of those lower paid people who (perhaps naively) chases her passion. I truly feel bad for people who are downright miserable at their jobs. I’m not willing to sacrifice 5-15 years because while I’d like to think I’ll make it to the ripe old age of 103, I’m not promised tomorrow. However…there are days when I’d like to know what it’s like to make six figures. I’ll get there in another 15 years or so. But yeah, there are trade-offs for sure. And I do think there are many FIRE people who aren’t miserable. They’re just not totally inspired. Maybe they found a happy medium?

    • “I’m not willing to sacrifice 5-15 years because […] I’m not promised tomorrow.” This is so key! I know people who worked really hard to retire early by some definition of early only to not live very long past their early retirement date. Life is short and meant to be lived! I think you’re right that the FIRE people who aren’t miserable have found a happy medium in the form of a job that they are okay with for now, but don’t want to do for the rest of their lives. I’m unfortunately someone who either gives something 100% or 0% and so I need to find more joy in my job/career than someone who can pursue FI in N “short” years.

  5. I agree on your points about the need for mental stimulation and doing something you love. Many financial planners attest to the need for these things during retirement. There are studies proving that lifespans are longer for those who retire and still incorporate those aspects into their life when compared to those who retire and decay (mentally, physically, etc.).

    I disagree on taking a lower paying job that brings you joy. Try to maximize both income and joy and whenever there is a trade-off to be made between the two do what you know to be right for you. The more you’ve already saved for retirement, the more easily you can choose to lean to the joy side in such trade-off scenarios.

    Early retirement is not a lie. There is much to be gained from being able to spend almost all of your time with your children while they are still young or very young. There is much to be gained from being able to travel and even live in other countries (becoming fluent in another language, exposing your children to other cultures, etc.). Well written article, but your headline title is going to create some controversy I feel.

    • Your first point reminds me of the studies that show you should vary your route to work so as to keep your mind active or how bilingual people tend to keep their minds active for longer too.

      I agree that one should try to maximize both income and joy whenever possible. I don’t think that reducing income necessarily increases joy nor does increasing income necessarily reduce joy – there is possibly some inflection point there though as others have alluded to in their post-FI plans. I would certainly within reason prefer a lower paid job in which I find more joy than a higher paid job in which I find less joy. Of course, if one could find two jobs in which one would find equivalent joy, one would pick the one with the higher pay. That’s what I did for many years.

      I believe that retirement in most senses of the original meaning is now a lie. Most financially savvy modern people will live for a long time past when they could financially retire and they will surely keep themselves occupied in some way or another mentally.

      There is so much to be gained from being able to spend almost all of your time with your children while they are still young or very young, but not everyone even wants to do that. It is great to have that option though. It is also great to be able to travel and live in other countries. There is, also, something to be said for appreciating your home country and city over always extending yourself to the rest of the world.

  6. I have been successfully click-baited. ;P

    I agree the FI community zeroes in on salary above all else to an unhealthy extent to try to power through the working period. That said, for me, the lower paying types of projects I want to pursue (PhD, nonprofit work, possibly civil service) could not sustain our current lifestyle, let alone one with kids in the mix. Luckily, in spite of my mehness wrt work, they keep saying I’m doing well and giving me money. I will admit riding the wave is emotionally taxing though. #firstworldproblems

    Even if I could find a job I liked more that gave me just enough money, I really really hate the feeling of obligation that comes with paid work. It’s like constantly feeling I owe someone– my employer, manager, client– something in exchange for being allowed enough money to live. My best creative work has come from unpaid projects. And the few times I have tried monetizing I have loathed every moment of it.

    My hope is that, since money is a very strong trigger for me, if I take it out of the equation I will be able to pursue my passions whole-heartedly. Of course people really differ on this though and should balance appropriately.

    • My husband’s general comment was “The title is misleading but the article had some good points” :P
      It really bothers me some days how much the FI community zeroes in on salary and finances – I think it’s just as unhealthy of an attitude as ignoring one’s finances and hoping everything is going to work out just fine.

      I’m glad that you are able to do well at work even though you are meh about your job! I’ve sadly lost that capability the more my net worth has grown. I wonder if you will get to a point where you are not quite fully FI, but money is no longer much of a trigger for you and you could pursue your passions wholeheartedly. I’m curious where that point is for you, just like I am curious where it is for me. I don’t think it’s all the way to FI for me anymore like I used to think it was.

      • That’s probably true. I already feel like I am less stressed about money than I used to be so the all the way approach will probably become less appealing over time. The only thing I think will kind of force me to go all the way is my future-family, particular the future-kids.

        • I’m so glad your money stress has been reducing over time! It’s such a wonderful feeling. I’m curious to see how kids and marriage affect these feelings.

  7. I do think it’s possible to keep kicking ass at work even if we’re not in it for the long term. We’ve been in our jobs a long time and we remain committed to them and to the success of our companies even though we know we have an exit strategy. In our case at least, it’s a matter of perspective — we’re grateful to have these jobs, we’re grateful to do work that feels important even if we don’t want to do it forever, and we’re STILL eager to move on to the next thing. The things we are most excited to kick ass on are things you can’t get paid to do, or at least not without being a world class mountaineer or skier, so we’re fully committed to living the post-work life very soon. :-)

    • You’re clearly a better employee than I am – I can’t maintain committed to something when I’m thinking about the next thing. I need to maintain my commitment to the current thing in order to keep kicking ass at work. I’m glad you have found work that is important to you and that you can continue to kick ass at even though you don’t want to do it forever! I’ve sadly figured out that that isn’t something I can do.

  8. I’m one of those that is using a higher income now as a tool to hopefully pursue my passions full-time later down the road. The thing is I have lots of things I want to try and once I quit my day job, I still won’t have enough time to pursue them all so decisions will have to be made. Maybe I’ll spend 3 years starting a business, then a year learning an instrument, then hard-core lifting for 3 years, then teach a class. I think what will keep my mind excited and not upset about losing the challenges of a day job are all the things I hope to throw at it.

    • Sounds like you are possibly planning on multiple careers, some of them lower paid than your first one! I think it’s far less stressful in financial terms to pursue a higher paid career you find okay first and then pursue interesting lower paid ones later. It’s a reasonable strategy so long as you can maintain momentum in the higher paid career.

  9. I keep rethinking the idea of early retirement. I’m very obsessive over goals, so sometimes I feel like I’m not living life because I’m chasing this goal of early retirement. But is that what I want? I’m not going to go crazy and buy everything at the mall, but I also want to rethink how I view life. I’m trying to look at finances differently. Optimize as much as possible but still enjoy life.

    • You and I are so similar in our tracking towards and focus on goals. I have been listening to a lot of the Jess Lively podcast lately and her shiny penny concept is so key here. Financial independence is such a shinny penny, but what do we we do when we get there? Ms. ONL talked about how their FI life is still just life today. They still have work and chores and you know, life. I wish you balance, friend!

  10. I don’t disagree with this post, honestly! However, a few random thoughts in response:

    I’m with Taylor in that many jobs simply do not pay enough to live on, and that I dislike the feeling of obligation that comes with paid work.

    All work is work, even work you love. ‘Dream’ jobs are often low paying because they are enjoyable … but they can also be stressful and unstable (so many journos, teachers, social workers burn out).

    Honestly I do love my job, but 6-7 years into working full time, I am starting to tire a little. Probably need a holiday … In a dream world I’d like to work maybe 8-9 months a year, or maybe 30 hours a week, but doing the same thing without sacrificing pay.

    I’m not working toward FI. However if money was no object, I would probably volunteer a lot, and probably do some freelance writing. I can’t think of any formal part time jobs I would want to do.

    I’m with Trip on maximising income and joy if possible. Enjoying my work is paramount to me – I refuse to consider jobs at many organisations, because I know my heart wouldn’t be in it. But earning enough to fund the life and future life I want is also vital. I think my next move may result in some tradeoff between money and joy – up till now I’ve been able to increase or maintain joy while increasing income, but I don’t think that can continue much longer.

    • Thanks for your thoughts – it didn’t sound like you disagree with me, rather that you are more interested in financial freedom and security than early retirement, so really we are on the same page. We have such similar dream worlds! My husband and I, for example, would love to spend a month or two each year living closer to each of our families to get more time with them than the really small amount we can give each right now (each of them get about 7-10 days per year right now at most).

      All work is work and comes with the BS and stressors even though you love the underlying piece. For my husband, I have a feeling that financial independence will feel like being able to eliminate those stressors from his job and find ways to just do the parts of his job that he enjoys. I also don’t think we get nearly as many vacations as we need. I get stressed pretty easily, even though I thrive on it, and more time off would be wonderful. I miss the college days where I had closer to 8 weeks off per year versus now with more like 3 weeks.

      I have had such a hard time finding a job with enough joy in it for me in the last few years, which has been frustrating because enjoying my work is super important to me. I’m hopeful that I can leverage the nest egg I’ve already built to spend some time exploring more about what brings me joy in my work. Good luck with your next move trading off money and joy – I hope it works out as you want it to.

  11. I have a very nice and reasonably high-paying job (though others may laugh at my roughly $3300 per month posttax income). However, I want to keep going at it until I’m FI. In my case because I’m not sure what my job will look like ten years from now. Will it exist? Will it be as nice as it is now? In the ten years that I’ve worked so far, the job has become more stressful already, and I have less colleagues now, too. So if that trend continues …

    I’d rather be financially secure if/when I lose my job or start hating it or start becoming less good at it. So that’s why I spend less now.

  12. If I were prepped to reach FI in my early/mid 30s, a second career seems like an obvious best path rather than trying to create a totally career-less life. The structure of a career works for me, but removing the obligation to make a profit in my own personal life would be a game changer that would require serious consideration.

    I wrote a post a while back exploring thoughts on what work means to me and why I like to work: https://stackingpennies.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/why-do-we-work-so-hard/

    I generally really enjoy my job, but there are some stressful parts to it, and if I was totally FI, I would at minimum approach the job differently.

    • I love your phrasing of a second career over a totally career-less life! That’s definitely how I plan to approach it as well, though I have a feeling it will happen before I’m fully FI. I quite enjoyed that post of yours :) How do you think you would approach your job differently if you were totally FI versus partially FI? I’m really curious to see how marriage affects my approach to a job I don’t like compared to being single.

      • How I would approach my job differently is a good question, and not one I’ve entirely thought through. The details that immediately come to mind are very specific to how my job is set up. I will think about it, and possibly post on it in the future.

        For me, marriage mostly affects my thinking when it comes to 1) size of cash reserves needed 2) family planning options (do we both need to work full time) and 3) level of panic if I had to transition jobs unexpectedly.

        Contrary to a post you recently linked (in a comment?) on Money After Grad, a spouse really is an additional income stream if you look at family unit. I agree with her point that it is critical to be able to take care of yourself, but it is important for me to have a bigger picture partnership, including finances. Even if you plan for the contingency that it may not be forever as planned. Especially if you add kids, but even if you don’t.

        • I agree with the purpose of Bridget’s post: you don’t want to be financially dependent on your spouse. But I also agree with Meg’s classic APW post on marriage as a mini-socialism. If you have combined finances and both spouses could carry the household on their own, then you don’t need nearly as large of cash reserves as you would if you were single. Even without combined finances, marriage immensely helps me with the level of panic I would have around needing to transition jobs unexpectedly. It means there is health insurance, flexibility, and support within the family.

  13. Good thoughts. There really are two different paths here, and I think each can work for a different type of person. I wrote a post back in August comparing these two options, and noted that I took the “RE” path, but concluded that if I had known earlier in my career what I know now, I would probably take the path advocated here. Post is here: http://trappedinwork.com/2016/08/how-long-are-you-in-for/

    Even though I think the second path is likely the better option for most people because it is more readily achievable and more sustainable (and again, the one that I likely would have followed had I been wiser at a younger age), I don’t think that makes the RE path a “lie.” But it’s a provocative title; it got me here. :)

    • From your post, I loved this: “It seems to me an unavoidable conclusion that if you are counting the days until you can leave your job—and that timeline is longer than a year away—something is not right.” And that is a key point of my post here as well. If you could do things over, do you think you would have pursued the aggressive FI option until a certain point and then switched over to a more productive passion route, a hybrid of the two? That is quite likely my plan. Loving your blog – thanks for stopping by!

      • Thanks Leigh! Yes. If I had it to do over again, I think that as soon as I realized that I hated what I was doing—and that I was doing it almost exclusively because of the great money—I would have moved decisively to find a better balance between income and fulfillment/intrinsic value. If you think of those two characteristics as the primary motivators for why people work, and you were to assess each on a 0 to 10 scale for a given job/profession, I was at a 9 for income and a 1 for fulfillment/value. Maybe at the point of realization I should have moved to something more in the range of 5/9 (if possible). That’s the trick: the two factors tend to be inversely related! I’m not sure there are many 10/10’s out there—maybe something like pediatric brain surgeon, and probably a good number of entrepreneurial endeavors. But there are plenty of 0/10’s, 10/0’s, and 5/5’s. But if I had been more thoughtful about it earlier, I think I could have found a good hybrid productive passion. Good luck to you in seeking one!

  14. This was a really refreshing perspective! I feel like I’m the only one on earth who doesn’t hate my job and isn’t planning to retire before i’m 30 (especially since I’m really just starting out in my career, and I’m almost 30). I do love the idea of becoming financially independent. I like the idea of having enough money that I don’t necessarily have to work. But I think thats different than suffering through each day, hating my job, just so I can sit on a stack of cash. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Amber! Financial independence certainly is different from suffering through each day, hating your job, just so you can sit on a stack of cash. I hope you enjoy your career, especially since you’re just starting out!

  15. Excellent post Leigh!
    That’s an interesting perspective on early retirement but it makes a ton of sense. I took an early (mini-retirement) this past year and have been blogging about my journey. Though I plan on going back to work soon, the time off has shown that joy really is more important than money. And you’re right. There needs to be a mental stimulation through doing something you enjoy to be happy. Thanks for sharing!

  16. I vary between wanting FI for geographic and responsibility freedom (aka, I just don’t want to work the Job while I have twenty other jobs to do) and for my health and being able to rest. Earning the big money is the more efficient way to do this, but I also like the idea of working part time in a high enough position (note – not high powered which implies full time dedication and burnout type hours to me) that I have authority and autonomy. I’d still earn income and have more flexibility. It’s not something we could afford right now but I consider it a strong alternate option to aim for.

    • I see FI and ER as separate though related concepts in that you ideally need FI to be able to ER. I see achieving FI as a great plan! It provides flexibility to take more sabbaticals, to explore lower paying jobs, or for you, to have the time to concentrate on your health and resting. It’s definitely something worth aiming for.

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