5 Reasons Why Military Retirees Keep Working

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A reader posted a forum comment about his co-workers:

I’m always intrigued when I hear about recently retired military personnel with pretty good pensions who take new jobs after retiring in their mid to late 40’s. If they want to work that’s fine of course, but it’s pretty sad that many of them probably feel they need to work, because of society, pressure from their spouse etc. My personal favorites are the upper middle class level military retirees, like junior officers up to majors whose pensions are somewhere in the ballpark of my annual earnings (or maybe more) and are working at new jobs. A clear case of financial independence and not knowing it, or at least not embracing it.

It’s far more nuanced than that, and everyone faces similar issues when they reach financial independence. I’d pay attention to these examples (positive or negative) and learn from them.

Commitment to service

Some retirees feel a commitment to service because they’ve spent over two decades taking care of people. It feels perfectly natural to move to customer service, education, police/security, EMT/medical, or some other field that lets you continue to take care of people. One of my college classmates earns a large income and donates it to charity. He’s just happy to show up to work every day and help other veterans. I joke that he’ll never learn how to retire, and he jokes that he’s given up on finding me a job.

Image of money in a pile of 20 dollar bills | The-Military-Guide.com

It’s not just about the money.

I personally fit into the “take care of people” category. But I want autonomy to go with my complexity and fulfillment, and I don’t want to take on the commitment of supporting a team. Writing on my own gives me the best compromise.

 

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“You Can’t Handle The Truth!”

A few vets have acquired the “military inferiority complex”. We’ve been told our entire time in uniform that we’re worthless and weak, we’re barely able to perform at our current rank (let alone promote), and we can’t hack it in the civilian world (“Now drop and give me 20!”). Then we leave active duty for the Reserves/Guard (or leave the military entirely) and we discover that we have skills. Those core skills that we bring from the military (augmented by training in the new job) can translate to fulfilling careers with ample incomes. I’m sure a few vets belatedly realize that they let themselves be tricked into staying in uniform as long as they did.

I’m a nuclear-trained submariner and I still feel like that myself occasionally. I’m perpetually surprised at the revenue opportunities all around me with low barriers to entry. I personally regret staying on active duty for 20 years when I could’ve gone to the Reserves at 12 (but was too busy and too ignorant to recognize the opportunity).

Some retirees just want to see whether they can hack it in the tough civilian job market. If you got paid six figures to supervise a financial educational foundation with a few employees, you’d be tempted. If you knew that some of your routine would be talking story with clients in their 20s, traveling around the nation, attending events, and doing interviews for national media… why would you ever retire from that career?

Some vets want to see what they can do with their abilities. I personally know at least two dozen military veterans who worked hard to become entrepreneurs (Blake Hall of ID.me comes to mind, as does Jacob Wood of Team Rubicon). When you can apply your military skills to a project where you have complexity, fulfillment, and autonomy (plus a lot more control than you had in the military) then you have no reason to quit.

 

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Lifestyle

Some of us are adrenaline junkies. We thrive on danger & crisis, even if it’s “just” a short-term administrative deadline. That motivation certainly correlates to careers in police, fire, security, medical, disaster response, sports, and just about anything competitive. And yes, it’s generally a testosterone-poisoned issue, which in my case is mostly handled by surfing & full-contact taekwondo. Yet even my spouse, with her background in emergency planning and disaster response, can hardly bear to watch our state civil defense staff scramble to keep up as the hurricane approaches.

Some vets start a bridge career for the camaraderie, especially in the defense or utility industries. It’s a whole new audience for your sea stories, and it’s much of the routine that you were accustomed to on active duty. Nuclear reactor operator at the electric company? Maybe. Test pilot or aircraft designer? Sure! It also involves elements of service, adrenaline, and climbing the career ladder. But it’s good to hang out with people you enjoy being around.

A few vets have their identity tightly tied to their military career. They didn’t really develop many outside interests, let alone hobbies. They miss having a staff whose sole duty seemed to be to entertain them and make them feel needed help them get things done. Now they’re adapting to a new identity and trying to figure out how to do things for themselves. Eventually they’ll have to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives (or have it figured out for them by a major life event)… but not today.

 

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Coping Mechanism For Disabilities

A distressingly large number of vets are severely disabled and dealing with tremendous pain or depression. Working might not be a fun barrel of monkeys, but it gets them out of the house and distracts them from problems that will accompany them for the rest of their lives. For a few, it gives them a reason to live.

The vets in this category are generally glad to be employable, especially considering that they’re paying huge sums for long-term care insurance or concerned about having enough assets to cover their care if they’re crippled. This issue doesn’t always manifest as a wheelchair or other visible signs, either— I personally know a few dozen veterans who struggle with huge issues on the inside that can’t be seen from the outside.

 

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A Changing Family Dynamic

Some vets have disabled family members who will need lifetime care. The vet is contributing their income to a special-needs trust or paying for caregivers.

A very few vets start a bridge career because they’re uncomfortable with their families– or their families can’t stand having them around the house.

These vets have been absent for much of the family’s last 2-3 decades, and they don’t understand who’s really running the household. Instead of hanging around the home trying to take charge, or optimizing domestic routines, or setting new disciplinary standards, or offering helpful suggestions… they come to the workplace where they can be paid to do those things. Or their spouse told them to find a job and get the heck out of the house for at least eight hours a day.

All too many vets have gone through financially devastating divorces. It’s possible that those “upper middle class level military retirees” with “pretty good pensions” have given at least half of that income stream to their ex-spouses. On top of that they may also be paying child support, college expenses, or even mortgage payments. This is a controversial and highly-charged issue among both vets and ex-spouses.

A handful are trying to make up for perceived failures in their military careers. One of my old commanding officers claims that there are dozens of retired generals, admirals, and senior enlisted who are crying themselves to sleep every night because they only made the top 10 of their rank instead of being #1. That CO, however, cheerfully retired to start his consultant firm to advise other companies on corporate crisis management.

 

Consumerism

But yes, the original comment at the top of this post speaks some truth. A fraction of the military’s retirees never saved any money on active duty, and they have the possessions to prove it. They have no idea how to manage their finances, and frankly they don’t see the point.

They just keep converting paychecks into new consumerism lifestyle responsibilities as quickly as they can. They’re usually assisted by one or more spouses and perhaps adult children. Because life is too short to drink cheap beer, even if they’re working 40+ hours/week to pay for it.

I personally knew a retired admiral who never saved or invested. He was well into his 70s and still working to pay for his family’s lifestyle… because his pension wasn’t enough to cover the expenses.

 

“Wait, what?”

It’s possible that some military-retiree workers are blissfully ignorant about financial independence. Please send them my way so that we can help them work through the lifestyle questions.

 

Call to action:

Rather than feeling sad for your co-workers, you could ask them what motivates them to go to work. The answers might surprise you and could offer new opportunities for self-reflection on your career goals.

Another poster chimed in:

I’m financially independent, retired from the military with 22 years. I’m 44 years old, single, and can easily live off my pension and savings. I have a paid off residence and a paid off car. I just always wanted to teach. When I retired I started in JROTC (high school) and then moved to a contractor position as a college ROTC instructor in a location I preferred.
I don’t know for how long I’ll do it, and I have a ton of things I want to do when I stop working. It was just something I wanted to check out. It was a chance to figure out my actual expenses after living overseas for many years. I also liked the idea of having a “soft landing” and some structure in transitioning from military service to civilian life and eventually to full retirement.

 

If you’re a military retiree who’s financially independent and still working for a paycheck, please tell us why! Your story will help other servicemembers understand, and it may even motivate them.

Related articles:
Outliers: The Story Of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
Finding Your Military Work-Life Balance
Reader story: Stay For 30 Or Retire At 27?
“Just One More Year” Syndrome
“I’m Setting A Good Example By Working At A Job”
Ernie Zelinski’s Get-A-Life Tree



WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

12 Comments
  1. Reply
    Deserat December 5, 2016 at 2:58 PM

    Late to this – I like to think that retiring just means you go do something else. If you’ve been frugal and lived below your means and managed to develop an income to provide for your lifestyle costs, then you have more choices in what that ‘something else’ can be-paid, partially paid, not paid….I was a Reservist, so I had/have another career outside of the military. One of the great things, in retrospect, was I was able to see many more perspectives and get a break from each endeavor – a breather to step back and look at what I wanted and what was working. Interestingly, my father and I had a conversation right before I retired from the Reserves after 30 years and he said that I probably wouldn’t have gotten that far had I stayed in full-time (active) -he’s correct. In each situation (military and civilian), I was able to take a break from the accretion of overhead by going and working in the other environment. I was like an outside consultant in each for a time. My main goal after awhile was to look at what types of interesting experiences I could gather that would be of use to me in the future (make me a better person) as well as find the ways to build streams of income for when I would no longer be someone’s employee. I have reached that point a lot sooner than I anticipated, however, by making sure I had several options along the way, I was able to increase the probability that I could do that ‘something else’ in whatever paying (or non-paying) capacity I desired.

    I did not have that perspective early in my career (I was in my late 20’s early 30’s before I truly focused), however, once I did have that perspective and focused on the end goal, I reached it fairly quickly. Like any goal worth obtaining, daily habits and a focus on the goals gets one far; a step-by-step approach.

    You, Doug, have been one of my mentors in this – along with several others. I try to pass it forward – just this week I gave to a mother of a young son who wants to go into the military a copy of your mini-book on FI and military retirement, told her my story and said it could happen for her son…we’ll see what happens, although her willingness to listen and pass it on means the odds are definitely in her son’s favor.

    And lastly, Doug, you didn’t really retire – you just changed your work to doing this – educating others about how to become FI and providing resources to help them learn how to do that…it is a job, but one you enjoy and will probably do for a long time. Thanks again for all of your efforts – I know they’ve helped me.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman December 6, 2016 at 10:23 AM

      Thanks, Deserat, I appreciate the gratitude but I can’t think of this as “work”– there are no department meetings or mandatory training presentations!

      I think the Reserve and National Guard models of working and serving produce a much more balanced (and beneficial) life than two decades of active duty followed by a bridge career.

  2. Reply
    Ms. Montana September 29, 2016 at 12:27 PM

    We have had a lot of friends retire in the last few years, and all these reasons apply. Although I think very few are fully prepared with their money. Even if their retirement is in the $2000-$3000 range, after they buy a nice home, it really isn’t enough. Mr. Mt’s military retirement wouldn’t be enough on it’s own, but we saved aggressively while he was still active. Between paying cash for our home, buying rentals and our retirement accounts we could opt to never work again. But he will, I know he will. He loves using his skills to help people. Volunteer or paid.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman October 1, 2016 at 11:48 PM

      Thanks, Ms. M, sounds like you’ll have the best of both worlds: working for fulfillment and fun, and not having to work for money.

  3. Reply
    Doug Nordman September 16, 2016 at 7:07 AM

    Great point, Gerald– the goals have to be worth the hassle factors.

  4. Reply
    Gerald Zeigler September 13, 2016 at 5:49 PM

    In my case, while we made many good personal finance decisions during my Navy enlisted career, we didn’t have a long term plan with concrete goals- one that included FI at military retirement. Since my wife was (and is) active duty and we weren’t that far off of FI, it would have taken just a few adjustments to have been there and really no “pain”. My wife is eligible to retire in two years and we will technically be FI whether I continue working fright now or not, but it doesn’t match our goals. My wife worries that despite the projections I present her (based on actual spending patterns and living in a relatively low cost of living area) that it won’t be enough money, that she can’t stop working until the children or at least all but one are out of the house. She worries about having a mortgage in retirement. So now we have a plan to have the mortgage paid off for one house in 4 years and by then we’ll have two children under 18 at home. So 2022 is the date to reach just one child.
    As for me, I retired in 2009 and stayed home with the baby born 9 days after my retirement date. Eventually I got part time and temp work to keep my mind engaged and to consider a second career. And we set specific goals for that income, since it wasn’t needed. The past two years I have been working full time and when I told people I was working to pay for vacations they smile or chuckle. I’m not sure if they believe me – but it was the primary reason for me taking a job that wasn’t particularly challenging or enjoyable. Although, we are considering another vacation before we PCS, my primary reason to continue working now is to save extra money for the PCS – to give us more flexibility and options. Now that the super-vacations are done all of my income, including my pension is going to savings and investments and some of my wife’s too. Once we PCS the bulk of my income will go to that mortgage. When we transfer I do want to work part-time/temp work in an area enjoy, like what I did before we moved here. I may look for full time that I enjoy in order to pay off that mortgage faster. So in summary, I work for specific financial goals. As long as achieving the goals outweigh the inconvenience of working, I’ll keep doing it.

  5. Reply
    peter gregory September 9, 2016 at 6:56 PM

    By their make up, both intellectually and emotionally, the military, active, retired, separated are probably the most self-driven and motivated people likely in American society. Few if any, middle grade enlisted to retired 5 stars, would likely transition from the military to nothingness or idleness. We never really “retire” from anything, but transition to something else. When I was stationed at Camp Lejuene I cannot count the number of Sergeants Majors who died of heart attacks 40-60 days after a 30 year career. Many times their spouses would report they just sat and really had no reason to get out of bed, or suffered from a lack of social or professional contacts common in their careers.

    Some continue to work because they need too are required too, others because their self image and need for professional accomplishments demand such. Others simply because they hate being board or need to get out of the house, all valid reasons. You can call me one of those Vanguard millionaires. I still continue to work at 60 because I still enjoy what I do post a military career. If or when that changes, will be more than happy to put my toes in the sand and watch the sunset with a cold one. And not look back once.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman September 10, 2016 at 3:21 AM

      Thanks, Peter, you’re right that we have to have something to retire TO, not just retiring FROM.

  6. Reply
    Big Dawg September 9, 2016 at 12:53 PM

    Doug,

    DW and I are both retired and are FI. She went federal and I am a contractor. She works because she is young, empty nester, likes a few finer things (wants a vette). I work because I failed at ER last year. My head was spinning after 5 months. We will still retire early. Most likely 55 for me and 50 for her. Her father (retired Master Chief) still runs his own small company at age 76. He works because the way he is wired. Doc told him if he stopped he would be gone in 6 months. He does take lots of time off and probably only works 20-30 hours per week.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman September 10, 2016 at 3:19 AM

      Great comment, Big Dawg!

      You’ll find the type of retirement life that works for you… and 20-30 hours per week is just fine when you get to choose which hours.

  7. Reply
    Bill September 9, 2016 at 7:34 AM

    I think its a combination of a few things. First and by a big margin is the way military folks consume. We are a 05 family and we are the only people I know who can and will retire after 22 years. Most others MUST work to pay for their debts. Listening to people talk about the big house that they have to have, the two cars that they are paying off. The house thing is just crazy, if you plan to retire your retirement house should look a lot like your starter house ( price and cost to live in it). Cars are another huge loss of cash, 40-60K for a car? My 14 year old CR-V runs great and is saving me money every day it starts.
    Second is the idea of retiring in your forties, I’m getting it already from people” what are you going to do all day” or “you are too young to not work” My dad retired young and was never busier, but doing what he wanted to do with his time.
    Talking to a officer the other day about retirement, she is the same year group and was bouncing ideas off me about retiring and said that she needed at least a job paying 100k after retirement. She asked what I was doing and said retiring from working and there was silence. She has got herself into a financial hole where you got to have bring in big money every month.
    Lastly talking to others about if they invest in the TSP, I say half don’t and the other half invest only a few percent of their monthly pay. I think its because either they don’t have the extra money or don’t understand what a good deal it is.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman September 10, 2016 at 3:18 AM

      Thanks, Bill, I hear those comments a lot.

      Your comments about the TSP have been verified by DFAS and several military media publications… 2018’s mandatory enrollment in the L2050 fund should fix that issue.

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