Bridge career: “HA!”

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One of the book’s contributors checked in last week with an update.

Ben retired from the military a few months ago, but he’s been planning his transition for years. He spent many months on learning about the financial issues and researching retirement calculators. Initially he was concerned about his finances and “how long” (not “if”) he’d have to work a bridge career. In his five years before military retirement, he spent nights and weekends working on spreadsheets to chart his savings and then his spending plan. His questions centered around what type of work he’d have to do and how long he’d need to do it: Teaching? Online education? Landlord? Maybe even an office job?

Some servicemembers achieve financial independence as a side effect of pursuing another goal: a long military career with a senior rank, or living a very frugal & green life, or building a “side hustle” income that eventually takes off. Initially the savings don’t seem to be accumulating fast enough, and you wonder if you’ll ever have enough to retire. You worry about recessions and inflation, and you worry about supporting your family. It’s quite common for us more analytical nukes servicemembers to worry constructively with elaborate analyses of spending, income forecasts, and spreadsheet projections. Then there are all the other mundane issues: portfolio asset allocation, when to start drawing down taxable accounts, when to start TSP & IRA distributions, when to start Social Security, and how to fund the kid’s college educations.

It’s really not rocket science, but some of us try really hard to optimize every aspect of it. (I wouldn’t say that all of this is necessary, but it helps some of us to worry less.) In most cases it’s winning the game in the third quarter… but still running up the score.

After a few years of analysis & forecasts, he felt he’d resolved his financial situation. He’d have enough pension to support his family’s minimum standard of living, and his spouse was earning a good income of her own. She might work for a few more years, or maybe she’d retire too. They’d have some rental income along with their dividends and capital gains, and they’d be able to sell the real estate if necessary. He didn’t really need the money of a bridge career, and the next question was only what he would do all day. Would being at home with his family be enough? Would he throw himself into landlording or other home improvement? Would he start to volunteer? Would he miss the challenge of working on a project, doing what he’d been doing for over two decades? Would he regret not starting a bridge career and wonder for the rest of his life what might have been?

So here’s Ben’s latest e-mail:

I wanted to capture my thoughts on my “bridge career”. When I started working that idea never really crossed my mind. I was only going to do it until I got my fill. I retired in Oct 2011 after 21+ years in the military. I went to TAP two years out, got my financial house in order, really focused on what I wanted to do (or so I thought), and returned to TAP six months out. Let me say that I am financially independent and could walk away from the job today. In fact I was FI before I retired.

A good friend, one of my trusted mentors I’d worked with in the past, approached me when I was a year out from retirement. He asked me to come back to work for him in DoD as a government civilian. My first thoughts were “No way!” However, over time I began to reflect about the good times I had working with him and discounting all the negatives: egomaniacs, job stress, unrealistic deadlines from HQ, mandatory training. I must admit there was also the “Can I do it?” question to be answered. I wondered if he was throwing me a bone or whether he really valued my skills. I felt that I could do some good things for him and learn some more things along the way.

I slapped together a résumé and asked to visit his organization. It was good to see old faces and everyone was excited that I was coming back, but I was noncommittal. A couple of days later I told him that if he could get the details worked out then I would come help him for a while. I had a number in mind and a tentative start date. He offered my number plus about $10K. I countered that if I was going to work for this amount then I would also need 50% more vacation plus as much unpaid leave as I wanted. He concurred. He then asked me to start in two weeks. I told him that I could not start for 10 weeks as I was going to take some time to be with the family and travel. He reluctantly agreed.

Another friend had made the transition from active duty to DoD and on to another government agency. He advised me to set my salary at the level I wanted, to get my civil-service “membership” card, and then to move to another government agency. He keeps telling me that my skills and talents are so much stronger than what he is seeing in other areas of the government. He continually helps me polish a great government resume and he’s always sending me job announcements.

It’s barely been six months since I began working for my mentor, but after the first week I realized why he hired me. He is up to his neck in alligators. Sometimes he pulls me in to assist, and of course I still have my own alligators to address. That competitive drive and “friend” guilt is alive and constantly present. I find that I put in a lot more hours than I anticipated and I continually beat my head against the wall on the things I loathed about active duty.

I just finished my 2011 tax returns, and the additional revenue is not changing my life. It’s the start of my kids’ spring sports season and I want to spend a lot more time with family. Talk about a disincentive to work. So what’s changed since I retired? I’m even more financially independent than last October, and now I’m really fed up with wrestling alligators. I think I’ve answered the “Can I do it?” question. My next question is whether I can move my “membership” somewhere else and still excel. I suspect that will quickly get old and I will go back to full retirement.

This is the good side of financial independence in military retirement: the flexibility to work when you want to, not because you need the income to pay the bills. I think Ben is working through his concerns and his questions, and his financial independence takes a lot of the stress out of the daily routine. He doesn’t have to worry about layoffs, or refreshing his skills, or how much longer he’s going to need to work, or even promotions & office politics. He already took care of his financial concerns before he left active duty and now all he has to do is enjoy the challenges of the projects that he’s managing.

Of course a potential downside of military retirement could be wondering whether you’re really ready to quit yet. Should you see whether you have what it takes to climb the corporate ladder, not just the military one? Are you giving up the fulfillment and challenge of another career on your own terms? Will you miss the camaraderie of friends & shipmates, and feel socially isolated? Will anyone still hang out with you if you don’t have a bridge career? Without that bridge career will you be bored and restless, and grumpy around your family– the very people you wanted to spend more time with?

There could be a little well-meaning “retiree guilt” at work too: “We need your skills!” “We’ll have the old team back together!” “We’ll never be able to do this without you!!” It might even be friends who don’t share your interest in early retirement and who think you just need a boost of encouragement: “Do you really want to spend all day playing golf and rusting on the porch, or would you rather run with the big dogs and serve your country again?”

Ben has the financial independence (and a lot of patience) to work through these questions on his own terms. He’s sorting out whether he has the skills, the commitment, and the perseverance. He’s been able to separate the financial issues from the personal and emotional questions. He helped write the book on the subject, and he can tap into a huge support network of other early retirees at He’ll answer his own questions about his bridge career.

What about you? Are you taking care of your finances? Are you tackling the squishier questions about how you’ll spend your time with family, with friends, and on your own? Are you thinking about what you’d like to explore with the rest of your life? Do you understand your own motivations and fears that drive these concerns? Have you considered what you’ll DO all day in early retirement?


Related articles:
“But… but… but what will I DO all day?!?”
Myths of military retirement and early retirement
Dealing with “retiree guilt”
Forget about who you were and discover who you are
The transition to a bridge career

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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.

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