Five reasons to NOT retire early

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“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” — Henry Ford

A Yahoo! Contributor recently posted an article explaining five reasons why she’ll never retire early. She’s going to work as long as she can, and well past “traditional” retirement age of her 60s.

The author is one of Yahoo’s more popular writers and has considerable personal-finance writing experience, but I wonder how she spends her time outside of work. I wonder if she’s ever had a soul-sucking job– let alone been shot at for a living. I think she enjoys work (or at least doesn’t hate it) and she may fear retirement more from ignorance than from understanding.

Don’t get me wrong. If you find an avocation you like, and you enjoy working at it, then you should keep working. “Do what you love!” But whatever you do, whether it’s in the military or in a bridge career, you should keep pushing for financial independence. That way if your priorities change from work to family then you have the financial flexibility to make the lifestyle change. If the workplace turns bad– for whatever reason– then you’re not a hostage to a poisonous environment and a paycheck. You can step back from the job, maybe take some time off, and figure out a different way to keep doing what you love. Or you can move on to a new avocation. Financial independence gives you choices.

Some people find their avocation, earn their financial independence, and then keep working for the rest of their lives at things they enjoy. Several examples are university professors, doctors, lawyers… and writers. Others gain financial independence and then stop working for the rest of their lives to do things they enjoy, whether that’s in the workplace or out of it. They volunteer, explore the world, learn new ideas, play music, work on their own projects, and try to improve at their surfing hobbies. Both types of people are perfectly happy but they come from different backgrounds and don’t always understand each other.

As one poster commented, “I love it when people with zero early retirement experience write articles telling others why early retirement is such a bad idea…” I think this author is concerned about getting pushed out of the workforce before she’s financially independent. Or maybe she sees too many people running away from work as soon as they can collect Social Security. But instead of striving for financial independence, her solution is “keep working”. I hope she can, but she’d better love what she does.

The author may have had a sixth reason to write this article: to attract attention with a sensational headline and unconventional ideas. (Well, I like doing that too!) But there’s plenty of negative reporting in the media, and she’s attracting attention in a discouraging manner.

Here are her reasons to NOT retire early:

  1. I don’t do poor.
  2. I don’t count on Social Security.
  3. I would be bored.
  4. Work provides a social outlet.
  5. It will keep me in shape.

Let’s focus on the positive. I’m not going to try to dissuade anyone from their avocations, but I’m going to offer the facts and ask the thought-provoking questions that you need to consider for your own situation. I’ve also included the commentary of a few posters who are actually ER’d– particularly “FIREd” and “Audreyh1”.

1. I don’t do poor.
I don’t know anyone who wants to “do poor”. You certainly learn how to “live cheap” in the military when you’re in the field or on deployment, and when you’re living under those conditions it doesn’t take long to achieve financial independence. That’s a lifestyle of deprivation– just like dieting on 1000 calories/day– and it’s hard to keep it up. Instead, many early retirees align their finances with their values and find ways to live happy lives for less money. Whether you enjoy living “green” or you just don’t like wasting your resources, you can be frugal without deprivation.  Knowing how to be frugal means that you can always play great defense during a recession. Or if you practice a frugal lifestyle, then you can always appreciate treating yourself to a little luxury. But when luxury is all you know, then cutting back might seem like deprivation.

2. I don’t count on Social Security.
I think this is also short-sighted thinking based on ignorance or severe skepticism.

The government’s “do nothing” scenario for the Social Security trust fund reduces benefits to about 75% in 2030 or goes bankrupt in 2036.  Before then, the fund can be sustained at today’s 100% levels by lifting the limit on taxes  or by raising the tax rates for some income levels.

A conservative early retiree could assume that they’ll receive less Social Security, or delay the start of benefits to age 70. But assuming “no Social Security” is more media paranoia than realism.

Here’s another aspect of early retirement that many don’t realize until they’ve retired: you may not need Social Security. If you retire with only 20 years of work history then your 35-year earnings record has a lot of zeroes and your Social Security is much lower than the maximum entitlement– almost certainly under $1000/month. If you’re a military retiree with an inflation-fighting pension then you probably don’t need Social Security either– especially if you’re able to live within your pension.

3. I would be bored.
Let me try to understand the logic here.

We know that military veterans, with all of their years of training & discipline, can do incredibly creative and innovative things. They have the skills to accomplish the analysis, planning, & mission execution required to earn money, cut expenses, invest their savings, and achieve financial independence. They’re in the top-performing strata of society and they elevate themselves even higher with their financial-independence initiative.

But having reached that rare pinnacle, the next comment out of their mouths is “OMG, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself all day!!!”

Do you only use your brain at work? When you leave work, does your brain shut down?

Well, I guess the military culture causes that concern. Sometimes our chain of command gives us veterans an inferiority complex.

Consider this. If you made it to financial independence then you can surely figure out how to ENJOY not working for a paycheck. You might not need to start your own business, re-create the workplace environment, and bribe pay a bunch of people to entertain you. You definitely don’t need to find a cubicle of your own in someone else’s business. I know– that’s a stretch and you’re skeptical– but that’s just the sort of crazy out-of-the-box thinking that your co-workers accused you of when you mentioned that you’re going to be financially independent. Right?

Military veterans are trained to take care of their troops, and that carries over even when you’re financially independent. If that’s still important to you then there are dozens of non-profit charities desperately seeking volunteers to help their beneficiaries.

The absolute worst case? Give yourself freedom from employment for at least 90 days. Tell your friends & co-workers that you’re “taking a few months off to spend time with family & friends.” If that lifestyle’s not working for you then you still have a contact network to find (or create) a job.

Being responsible for your own entertainment can be scary– until you start doing it. Then your personal skills at getting things done will help you figure out what you want to do all day, and you’ll exhaust yourself doing everything you want. In fact your time-management skills won’t be needed to fill up your list– those skills will be needed to keep you from over-committing yourself.

4. Work provides a social outlet.
Why do people think that we only socialize through work? Is there really no other way to have meaningful contact?

Maybe this happens because you spend your liberty time with your battle buddies, or because you’re away from your family. But if you had a choice of forcing yourself to socialize eight hours a day with co-workers or of spending that time with them doing some other non-work activity, which would you choose? If they’re really your friends then you don’t need “the office” to be your social environment. On the other hand, if they’re never able to get together with you outside of the office, then perhaps they’re only co-workers and not so much your friends.

Again, financial independence gives you the opportunity to create your own social network— whether that’s in person or over the Internet. You can socialize as much as you want and have the flexibility to “stay home” if you’re not feeling social. It’s all your choice. Your true friends will find a way to spend time with you whether or not you’re working together.

5. It will keep me in shape.
Seriously?!? I don’t know about you guys, but most of my military career consisted of sitting around waiting for scary things to happen to us– or sitting around waiting to make scary things happen to somebody else. There would be a few hours of frantic activity, but that didn’t happen every single day. We actually had to create our own exercise programs, whether that was on our own or as a command.

So many civilian jobs are sedentary. And when you add in the time demands and the commute, work can severely interfere with working out. Sure, you can always commute by bicycle or walk during “lunch hour”– and we all should do that when we’re working. But again, do you really need the workplace environment to inspire you to these activities? Could you spend an entire morning on your own bicycle excursion, whether that’s to admire the view or to run your errands? Could you do your own walking around your neighborhood or at some other voluntary activity?

That’s the end of the author’s list, but here’s some other issues to consider:

If you’ve spent a career working for someone else and taking care of your family, it’s easy to lose track of your personal interests. Maybe it’s been so long since you’ve had a life outside of work that leaving work seems like leaping into a huge bottomless void. It’s hard to see past that.

I hope that we all find our avocations. It would be even better if they all paid well enough to get you to financial independence! Once you’ve reached that goal, you have the chance to use your own initiative to design your own life. Maybe you want to earn a paycheck for the rest of your life, or maybe you want flexible part-time employment, or maybe you only want to work on your own projects. Financial independence gives you the resources to redesign your life to your standards, with nobody looking over your shoulder or telling you what your goals should be.

Freedom & independence can be intimidating. You spent your military career ensuring that your fellow citizens could enjoy them. You might even have your own personal identity wrapped up in that mission. Now you have the opportunity to enjoy those liberties for yourself– with your own standards, on your own time, and at your own pace. Do you have the confidence and the initiative to make it happen?

Believe me, you’ll always be able to find someone else to tell you how to live your life.
Related articles:
Commentary at the Early Retirement discussion board
Frugal living is not deprivation
How many years does it take to become financially independent?

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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. When I was in college there was concern that automation and the shrinking need for workers in industry would continue to drive down the retirement age leaving great numbers of people in early retirement with nothing to do (sort of like the “new ice age theory” of the 1970’s versus global warming today).

    I remember a reporter asking economist John Kenneth Galbraith how the coming wave of retirees would keep occupied, and he replied, “The answer is education. Go to any campus and ask any professor what he would do with more hours in the week and he will have a list of projects, papers, books, and activities he wishes he had time for!”

    Another professor of the period, C. Northcote Parkinson, wrote Parkinson’s Law — “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” — along with Parkinson’s Law of Triviality which argues — “Organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues” — and both hit a key point that unless we have definite goals and desires, time will fritter away whether at work or play.

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?