“Top Ten Reasons to Never Retire”

(A few readers– and a lot of spammers!– may miss the irony of this title, so let me emphasize that military service can show you how to live a life that will lead to financial independence and retirement on your terms. Each one of these top-ten reasons has a solution that will enable you to stop working in your 50s or even in your 40s. You might even be able to retire from the military and never work again.)

Last week I was posting to a discussion board whose members are military officers. (Thanks for the inspiration for this post, guys!) I was explaining “The Military Guide” and how pursuing financial independence on active duty could offer more choices about a bridge career. One of the posters mentioned a popular personal-finance blogger who’s managed to cut his expenses down to about $2500/month and who’s enjoying his own early retirement.

Mr.MoneyMustache is a civilian who retired on his own savings, no pension, and high-deductible health insurance. His only “safety net” is going back to work and his only annuitized income is Social Security. But he’s living proof that servicemembers can fully retire out of the military on a pension of $30K/year and no savings. I’ve heard from enlisted who have managed to retire on even less.

So why don’t servicemembers just retire right out of the military and never work again? Nobody has done a full-fledged study, but one retired officer did a survey for his doctoral thesis. He found that over 85% of the officers who retired from active duty immediately started a bridge career. Via e-mail he told me that the more senior the officer, the more likely they were to start a bridge career.

Remember that these retired military are people with over $3000/month in pension income, an annual cost-of-living increase, and cheap healthcare. Are over 85% of them living in high-cost areas with a luxury lifestyle and excessive consumer spending? Perhaps. However, I suspect that if most of them really wanted to stop working, they’d be able to rearrange their lives and their finances to do so. They just haven’t found the priorities or the motivation yet.

Perhaps a minority are forced to work because of their financial situation. Or maybe these people are working in a bridge career because they want to!

Let’s turn the analysis around and come up with a top-ten list of reasons to never retire:

10. Blissful ignorance.

You didn’t realize you could make financial independence happen earlier and you need more time/savings to catch up. Or you never bothered to analyze your finances, you didn’t know how much you were spending, and you’re just now starting to plan for life after work. I’ve talked with several O-6s who proudly claimed that they have no idea what their family’s annual spending is. (That’s their spouse’s responsibility.) But they’re blissful. So far.

9. You have a financial challenge.

Divorce, severe chronic illness, a special-needs child, a very large family (although one achieved financial independence with six kids), outrageous debt ($200K in student loans). People have figured out solutions to these challenges, but they have to be resolved before you can resume your journey toward early retirement.

8. You choose to live a materialistic consumerism lifestyle.

For whatever reason, you’re willing to work for it. Older folks (starting in their late 50s) will tell you that this is not sustainable.

7. You start a bridge career and discover that you really love it.

This is true of doctors, lawyers, professors, and politicians. Congratulations, enjoy yourself! Personally, I haven’t found a bridge career whose “satisfiers” outweigh the “dissatisfiers”.

6. You feel a strong commitment to service.

Seriously. You want to work on a mission or take care of people just like you did on active duty. Even I miss this once in a while, and it’s one of the reasons I wrote the book.

5. You start a bridge career “Just to see what you can do”.

You don’t want to spend the rest of your life wondering “What if?” You’re worried that you’ll lose your relevance, that you won’t have a dog in the fight, and that you’ll rust on the front porch. Unless it turns into #7 or #6, this is even more unsustainable.

4. You identify with your rank.

You need a staff to entertain you, but your spouse refuses to volunteer for that duty. You crave the “structure” of the office environment. O-6s and flag officers are notoriously susceptible to this. I’ve met a couple of retired flags in their mid-70s who were still working. One had no savings (just military pension & Social Security and salary) and the other had no idea how to get through the day without a staff. (He wouldn’t even answer his own phone.) To be fair, I also know many O-6s and flag officers who retired from the service, reinvented themselves, and never looked back.

3. You’re terrified that your finances will vaporize.

You don’t trust the retirement calculators because they don’t cover every contingency. You fear that hyperinflation will outstrip your COLA, that Tricare fees will break your budget, that Social Security won’t “be there”, and that Medicare/Medicaid will implode. You’re concerned that the DoD will somehow eliminate your military benefits or even your pension, or that the federal government will go bankrupt. You’re worried that Baby Boomers retiring en masse and cashing in their stocks will crash the stock market. You don’t think long-term care insurance will be enough to pay your care facility bills. You don’t even trust the income from stock dividends, I bonds, TIPS, or rental property. Short of growing your own food, the only solution to this fear is a job with steady monthly income. Yes, I have actually conversed with people of these beliefs. I don’t think this syndrome has an actual cure, but one treatment is education.

2. You’re worried that you have no idea what you’ll do all day.

This can also be part of #7, #6, and #4. It’s a legitimate fear, and I’ve seen many people confront it. (Some voluntarily, some as part of a forced retirement.) There are plenty of books and brainstorming activities to help you figure out the answers. A couple of months after you’re retired you’ll realize that you’re busier than ever, and you’ll wonder what the heck you were worried about. The best cure for this fear is to test-drive your retirement during a long period of leave (at least 30 days) or an employer’s sabbatical.

1.  (Insert your own reason here.)

What’s keeping you from financial independence?

Every one of these other nine reasons has been resolved by servicemembers (and civilians) who have achieved financial independence and retired on their terms in their 50s or even their 40s. Some have even permanently retired right out of the military and never worked a bridge career.

Just make sure that you’re working because you want to, not because you have to.

Related articles:
Start here!
How many years does it take to become financially independent?
The biggest obstacles confronting all retirees
When should you stop working?
Myths of military retirement and early retirement

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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. Some may have a spouse who thinks that living on the lower budget would be too constrictive while the kids were going through high school and college. My husband retired from his part time bridge career the week before he swore our son into duty.
    Waiting was a mistake on my part. We would have been much better off just enjoying full early retirement long ago. Hind sight is 20/20.
    PS- Mr Mustache has no idea that public school does not mean free once you hit the middle grades and high school!

  2. Wonderful article, I can relate my experience with the #4 “You identify with your rank” type. The 06 that I worked for and I were both getting ready to retire from active duty. I knew he was looking to chose between several job offers and one day I asked him his criteria was for deciding. His immediate response was that the job had to provide him an actual office and admin. assistant (secretary), those and the job title were the most important to him and I’m sad to say for many that is still the case.

    • Thanks for your comment, Richard!

      I’m sorry to hear that regarding your O-6. I’m also relieved to report that other O-6s (and some even more senior to that) manage to retire with a more appropriate set of criteria…

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?