Dealing with “retiree guilt”


“Retiree guilt“?!? I don’t remember that subject being raised at any of the transition seminars. However, the early-retirement discussion boards are full of this unexpected speed bump. It can be an especially surprising source of stress in families.

It’s the retiree’s equivalent of survivor guilt. Instead of coping with the aftermath of surviving a life-threatening situation when others did not, your retiree guilt may be rooted in your new financial independence:

How can you sleep in when the rest of your family has to get up early for commuting and school?
How can you possibly “play” all day when others are trapped by work?
How can you share your joy at the fun you’ve had when your loved ones are dragging home from a 12-hour day?
Hey, the rest of us working stiffs have an early day tomorrow, could you please turn down the TV volume a bit?

Much of the syndrome can be handled with discretion, common sense, and good manners. If anyone else in your household has to go to a job or to school, then it’s probably a bad idea to stay up late that night and then complain about the household noise next morning. After everyone has left for the day, you don’t want to drive by your kid’s bus stop with your longboard sticking out of the tailgate. (I don’t want to get into how I figured this out.) When the family straggles home after a hard day they’ll appreciate a clean house with dinner on the table instead of finding voicemail that you’re still on the golf course. Everyone should still have their fair share of chores and responsibilities, but you can score bonus points by devoting your time and effort to the necessary tasks that always come up when everyone else is rushed or exhausted.

Another way to handle retiree guilt is reminding yourself that you worked your assets off for the retirement privilege. You spent long hours in terrible conditions with lousy food and inadequate rest, even before getting shot at or having to deal with other occupational hazards. You’ve endured years of deprivation that would make prison convicts riot in protest. Even if you’re not coping with post-traumatic stress symptoms you’re probably still burned out and chronically fatigued. You may have been exposed to hazardous materials that could injure your health (or reduce your longevity) and you may have some degree of disability. You’ve earned your retirement and you deserve to quietly revel in your accomplishments. People who question your new lifestyle are welcome to contact the nearest military recruiter to arrange their own cushy deals.

An ugly aspect of retiree guilt is other people’s jealousy or even envy. Your family & friends appreciate your sacrifices and no doubt shared a lot of their own. But others may have no idea what veterans have to endure to get to retirement– they only see the benefits you’re enjoying without appreciating their cost. They certainly don’t understand what pain and loss you endured to get to your retirement– it’s not about you at all. Instead they don’t like the way that your retirement makes them contemplate their own lives. They don’t want to be reminded that perhaps they could have taken similar steps to live more within their means, to save more aggressively, to pursue more education and training, or to tackle a more challenging occupation. While they may claim that you’re wasting your life, they’re really afraid that they’re wasting their own.

You worked hard for your benefits. Enjoy them. You don’t have to flaunt your lifestyle, but you have every right to live it the way you choose without hurting others. And in later posts, we’ll show you how you can start asserting your “retirement rights” by deciding how you’ll choose to spend your time.

Related articles:
“But… but… but what will I DO all day?!?”
Myths of military retirement and early retirement
Where are all the retirees? How do we ask for their advice?
When should you stop working?

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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.

  1. Thanks for your comment, Christopher. I’m hoping that the more military families learn about financial independence, the less pressure they’ll feel to get a job “just because” they’ve retired from the military.

    The best part about retirement is having the time for quiet contemplation and reflection, even if it’s “only” to decide what you’re doing this afternoon. I just added a link in the “Retirement” sidebar to Ernie Zelinski’s “Get-A-Life Tree”. It’s guaranteed to jumpstart your retirement activities. Keep in touch and let us know how things are going.

  2. I am a military retiree too, but older than most. I retired at 50 yo. I felt under a lot of pressure to find work but had no luck. This was really depressing. I went back to school under voc rehab to be a teacher, but decided 2 years into it, I didn’t want to work that hard anymore. Now after 6 years retirement, I am comfortable being a househusband. I cook, clean and shop during the day and try to make my wife’s life more comfortable after her 10 hour days. I signed up to volunteer with habitat with humanity and have gone back to a community college just to keep busy. I don’t feel the pressure that I felt earlier to get a second career. I just need to find some hobbies now.

  3. Same here, and I think most ERs struggle with it. I try to turn the conversation back to them.

    When new acquaintances see the way I dress and learn about my surfer-bum lifestyle, though, I think they’re afraid I’m going to ask to borrow their money. So they’re happy to talk about something else…

    I’ve really enjoyed your blog over the years. I think you deal with the personal & emotional issues that most financially-oriented bloggers never get around to. (Those issues also seem to keep a lot of military veterans in the workforce even if they don’t have to be there.) It’s even more impressive with your background of accounting & venture capital, where very few seem to ever feel compelled to retire!

  4. This is still a hard one for me–3 years into my retirement and I still have this retirement guilt. Especially when I meet someone for the first time, I feel very hesitant to tell hard-working people that I’m retired.

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?