It’s been a bit of a slug-fest at work. These last few weeks have brought on a heavy dose of 11th-hour drama that’s quite typical in the world of software delivery at large corporations. Sweating out another Sunday night has me pondering again: Should I reconsider ditching the cube early and explore the alternatives to retirement?
When you get close to the finish line of a project at work and the customer decides “This isn’t what I wanted”, all of a sudden, collegiality flies out the window. Emotions take over. In my case, being a leader means I wind up defending my team more than I should have to. They’re simply doing their jobs.
Being a mediator can feel bring on some serious stress. I can feel my blood pressure rising on those conference calls. That’s when I remember that it’s okay to want to retire early. This post will explore the pros and cons of early retirement. Are there merits to leaving the rat race, or does a meaningful career support a purpose-driven life?
Is Early Retirement Necessarily Good For You?
Over the years my job has fluctuated between periods of slowness and boredom and periods of mass hysteria and weekend-marathon testing calls. Part of what makes the field of software delivery so appealing is the decent pay. But that comes with the trade-off of high stress.
Unlike jobs where you have a steady flow of work and the outputs are within a high level of control, software delivery ebbs and flows. Some projects can wrap up within six months or less with no issues. Other projects can last three years or even longer and burn you out with ease.
One such project was the impetus for my five-year early retirement goal. February 2020 is the finish line. But I’m still 50-50 that I’ll hang it up then.
Stress reduction is a huge expectation with early retirement. When you retire, you are in control of your schedule. You are the boss and the agenda is yours to create. Certainly, you can’t expect 100% of your stress to melt away. Stress is a key part of life. The game is to find ways to control it, so it doesn’t overcome you.
Remember the Danes and their way of life summed up by the term Hygge? The ability to enjoy the simple things in life is made much easier by eliminating as many of the worries, stressors, and “clouds” that hang over your head: a bad job, high debt, poor health, stressed relationships, etc.
That’s all easier said than done. I’m not so naive as to think the Danes are impervious to the same trials and issues we face in the U.S. However, they have come up with clever ways to live a sustainable life. Early retirement will bias one to Hygge: foregoing all of the excess consumption that comes with a typical American life.
Early Retirement Gives You Time Back
Work isn’t a bad thing. Throw in a bad boss, questionable ethics, and toxic cultures, and then work becomes a very bad thing. But if you control the work, and you control the schedule, work is very good pursuit. Sometimes tasks and projects you don’t choose are you can perform with satisfaction.
Mowing the lawn, folding laundry, repairing a broken toy, or cooking dinner are menial jobs. But we’re designed to perform best when we have routines and tasks to tackle.
Writing blog posts isn’t something I have a ton of time for today, but it’s a task I enjoy. It’s way more fun than dreaded conference calls at the office. No contest.
There have been times when I’d find myself the last one to leave the office at 8 PM. The comical part about that is the lights get turned off at 7 PM. I had to stay in that war room though. Early retirement has no war rooms.
Contrary to what most believe, early retirement frees us up to pursue our passions. It’s this freedom that contributes much more meaningfully to society than our cubicle jobs ever did.
Do you have a charitable cause you’d like to pursue with vigor, given the time? Is there an invention waiting to be refined in your garage? Early retirement isn’t just a bunch of millennial retirees jetting off on exorbitant travel, sipping pina Coladas on random beaches somewhere.
I fully intend to keep making money after early retirement. There is a property management company idea forming in my head. I may get a real estate agent’s license and dabble in flipping houses. Whether I’m doing something in real estate or blogging or whatever, I’ll be doing something of value. Just don’t expect me to be hanging out in a cubicle, especially when the lights go out.
Stop and compare:
- I could be taking a walk around the lake in autumn, appreciating the fall colors. Or, I could be sitting on a conference call in my cubicle.
- I could be at a coffee shop I biked to, writing up blog posts or maybe even the beginnings of a book. Or, I could be sitting on a conference call in my cubicle.
- I could be picking up my kids from school and working with them to prepare dinner. Or, I could be sitting on a conference call in my cubicle (until 8 PM).
- I could be planning a four-week hiatus to go hiking and exploring? Or, I could be scrounging for a week off here or there, trying not to feel guilty about leaving work behind.
What If I’m Unable to Retire Early?
“I am unable to retire. Not yet anyhow.” A colleague fast approaching 65 shared that sentiment with me over a beer recently. The notion of being stuck in a cubicle at that age got me to thinking about my current lot in life.
The Cubert family is fortunate to live in a lovely little neighborhood within the city limits. We can take walks using an actual sidewalk, and appreciate the shade and fall colors from mature, tall trees. The grocery store is a mere four blocks away. The library and fancy booze shop one block further.
The mix of homes is fun to take in and makes for a nice mosaic of sorts. Some houses were built in the early 1900s but are well-kept.
Many more sprang up right after World War 2 to house returning veterans’ families. And of course, the latest addition: The dreaded McMansions.
On a recent walk, I began to think about what the three things are that prevent some of us from being able to retire early. Is the cause just three things: houses, automobiles, and tuition?
There’s an interesting mix of social, instinctual, and ego-driven pressures that seem to tug at all of us to upgrade everything in our lives. Some golfers go crazy over the never-ending upgrades in golf clubs. Smartphones and smartwatches, flat-screen televisions, and other gadgets keep us unpacking foam and cardboard as a weird sort of therapy.
Do we truly need bigger houses, fancy German cars for getting stuck in rush hour, or private schools for our kids? It doesn’t matter. We simply gotta have it.
We’re not only influenced by what we see next door, we now get to see it all on social media and gaze at everyone’s newest and latest upgrades. We’re not able to retire because we think we must spend money to be happy. It’s the FOMO phenomenon.
We would most likely choose to end the cycle of upgrades if we know that early retirement was a viable option.
The High Cost of Living and Retirement
The average size of U.S. homes increased by a full 1,000 square feet over the last ten years. We’re still willing to pay top dollar for space. Is that space necessary? Again, back to the walk around the block in my neighborhood. I’ll see more than a few lots where the structures have been torn down and solid 1,200 to 1,500 square foot homes have been replaced by a 3,000 or 4,000+ square foot one.
The cost of owning a house that big in the Minneapolis metro area approaches $500,000 – $800,000 with ease. It’s hard enough to justify purchasing the 1,500 square foot home at $250,000 plus. But if you feel you must keep up with the McMansions next door, and sink your dollars into a super-sized house, consider the costs:
1,500 square foot gem: $225,000 loan at 4% interest = $1,074 monthly payment
3,000 square foot HGTV Poverty Brothers home: $450,000 loan at 4% interest = $2,148 monthly payment
For the big house, property taxes will be about double the small house. In our neck of the woods that means you’d pay Mayor McCheese a whopping $6,000 per year to fund our public schools and infrastructure.
Utilities and insurance are much higher as well for big houses. You’ll pay about $200 a month on the small house for gas, electric, and water. Even if you assume the same water usage, it’ll cost more to light up, heat, and cool the Poverty Barn. Tab? $300.
Homeowner’s insurance will double as well. That’s because you need to factor in the cost to rebuild the structure. A house that’s twice as big requires double the materials. So assume you’ll pay $2,000 – $3,000 vs. $600 – $1,200 per year.
The total opportunity cost per year on the big house comes out to $35,376 vs. $18,288 for the perfectly useful small house. These are the houses society got by with back in the 60s and earlier, with LARGER family sizes. I didn’t mention the higher cost to furnish and maintain a big house. I tacked-on another $2,000 for that.
Early Retirement “Tax” for choosing that big house? $815,693. This assumes a 20-year window of time, compounding savings at 7% in an index fund.
Unable to Retire Early Because of Cars n’ Trucks
If a big ball and chain are holding you back from financial success, it’s the automobile. Consider its purpose: to get you from point A to point B, when your feet, public transit, or bike won’t suffice.
Consider how commercials fantasize zipping around bendy country roads on a sunny day, all alone with no competing traffic. In reality, you bring that cash-sucking Audi home and realize you’re just one in a herd of over-priced luxury vehicles, stuck in bumper to bumper traffic. At least you have seat warmers.
Choosing instead to drive only when necessary, and in a vehicle that’s in solid shape, paid for, and easy on fuel economy? “Nah, I’d rather flush my hard-earned cash down the toilet on car payments, insurance, premium unleaded, and maintenance. But sh*t if I don’t look cool doing it!”
Let’s use my favorite target, the BMW driver. The 10-year cost to maintain that thing on average? $17,800. Compared to the mighty, serviceable Honda Fit? $7,200. Next, let’s assume you drive 10,000 miles per year, consuming 333 gallons of gas (assume a 30 mile per gallon fuel efficiency). Paying for premium gas in your BMW or Audi will cost you $1,028 per year, vs. $852 for regular octane in a Honda.
Car insurance? That’ll run you close to $2,000 per year for that luxury beast. On average, the cost to insure a used Honda Fit with no collision coverage is less than $600.
Let’s not forget the cost of the car itself. New BMWs range from 30 grand to over 100 grand. Assuming you go for a modest BMW 3 series, reasonably decked out, you’ll spend about $45,000. A used Honda Fit with less than 80,000 miles will cost you $7,000.
The early retirement tax for choosing a fancy car over a used Honda Fit is $258,806. Again, assuming a 20-year window of time, compounding savings at 7% in a boring (but effective) index fund. By the way, this assumes your average couple drives just one luxury car. I’ll go easy on you and figure at least one car in that garage is a used, paid-off mini-van.
Adding up the opportunity costs so far, you’re already down $1,074,499.
Unable to Retire Because of Tuition
The third extravagance keeping you from early retirement is tuition. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really good thing to set aside money to help your children get a leg up on college costs.
We plan to fund at least half of their higher education with IRAs and 529 accounts. The rest will be covered with a few scholarships and some part-time work, plus summer jobs. They might wind up with some debt coming out of the deal, but nothing in the six figures.
In-state public universities still seem to offer pretty good value. A healthy number of people who boss me around and make close to or more than $200,000 per year went to the venerable University of Minnesota or St. Cloud State.
Had they been alums of Harvard or Yale, who knows? Maybe they’d be pulling in $2 million a year, or working for a D.C. lobbying firm? Realistically, they’ll make about the same salary, but be saddled with much higher debt. If you’re skeptical on that last point, consider this handy little article when Junior starts looking into school choices: Is an Ivy League Degree Worth it?
Then there’s this idea that you need to put your kids through private school, to make sure they get into a prestigious (but equal value) private college. It’s hard to fathom paying for private primary school since we pay $4,000 a year in property taxes.
Just as some private schools have excellent teachers and average teachers, the same holds for public schools. Sometimes you get large classroom sizes. Sometimes you get bullies, cliques, and other distractions. Education depends on several factors. The principle factor is how deeply we engage with our children and how deeply we support their curiosity on subjects they gravitate to.
Several families struggle to contemplate retirement in their sixties because they put their kids in private schools. In their minds, private education was the only way the kiddos could become happy and successful lawyers and doctors.
Sadly, nearly as many of these kids wind up in trouble as those who attended public school. If they didn’t get into trouble, their jobs are no better at providing fulfillment and happiness than peers who grew up in public schooling. The sad result of flushing all those tens of thousands down the drain is that mom and dad can’t imagine retirement until 75. Thanks, kids!
What is the early retirement tax for choosing private K-12 education for Johnny and Sally? $322,971. You cannot buy ambition, work ethic, and curiosity. No matter what the marketing wants us to believe.
Total Early Retirement Tax / Opportunity Cost: $1,397,470
That $1.39 million above doesn’t factor your shopping habits, dining out habits, and extravagant vacations. Throw in those lifestyle inflators and you’re probably blowing north of $2 million. That’s money that could instead be used to power an early retirement.
Remember the value of early retirement for the individual, the spouse, and the parent: Time is infinitely more powerful than money.
Be the supplement to your kids’ public school education. What your kids learn from YOU is more important than their grade school curriculum.
Be the support to your spouse, if he or she continues to work beyond your early retirement. Be a better, less stressed version of yourself, knowing you’ve achieved what very few have, since the Industrial Revolution.
The Power of Compounding Interest
Negative ten grand. How does that net worth figure strike you? About 12 years ago, I was nowhere near early retirement. I was instead destined for Cubicle Foreverland.
The really sad part? Here I was, ten years out of college, without jack to show for it. My investment savings were $42K. AFTER TEN YEARS OF CUBICLE WORK! What did Mr. Money Mustache stash away after ten years of work? Over a million dollars. I had my work cut out for me.
I want to point out two things: 1.) You don’t have to start young to save for early retirement. Give yourself a magic 10-year window, and go kick some ass. 2.) Don’t get discouraged. Even if it takes you 15 or 20 years, you’ll still reach your goal faster than 95% of the crowd.
Just take a look at that exhibit above. Holy buckets. The top three expense line items are credit cards, WITH BALANCES.
Overall, this 2005 budget was a financial “death by a thousand cuts.” I didn’t need to be blowing $125 a month on clothing. That was nuts. And I wasn’t even a flashy dresser. But you can’t have a blue striped polo shirt, without having a red striped polo shirt, can you?
The other death-cuts included Brinks (home security), Haircuts, Quest (landline phone), Star Tribune (Sunday paper), and Netflix. As for Brinks? Well, six months after I moved into my new house, it got broken into. The worst of the physical damage was the kicked-in door. Having a security system put in after that helped me sleep at night.
Haircuts are a fact of life when you have a full head of hair. Here’s the good news for those of you gents going bald: Cheap at-home haircuts! My wife buzzes my head for me once every two weeks. I’ll cut my sons longer locks once a month. Aging can be financially advantageous!
Trade-offs that Delay Early Retirement
Even when you suck at money, you can typically find others who suck worse than you do. The story of how we achieved financial independence is filled with epic fails and financial looney tunes.
Between 2006 and 2012, we took annual vacations to places that required passports: Switzerland, Costa Rica, Paris, Mexico, the British Virgin Islands, and Mexico again. Not cheap. And no, we did not take advantage of credit card bonus miles back then.
We also ate out a lot. How much? So much so, that we kept a journal to keep track of the dozens of restaurants tried. We thought we were aspiring food critics.
The impact of $150 in weekly restaurant tabs makes you want to scroll up for another face punch. That habit alone cost us $150,000 over 12 years. But we are here to live life and enjoy the moment, so it wasn’t an option to sit at home and count our index fund growth like Ebenezer Scrooge.
There were a few constants, going back to my first year out of college. I had always squirreled away at least 8% (often more) into a 401K. I always worked hard to quickly pay off debts.
Sure, I had periods where credit card balances incurred interest, but not too often.
I lived in a cheap apartment with a roommate for several years, relying on cheap or hand-me-down furnishings. Paying off $18K in student loans was easy back then. There was zero passport travel for me those first few years out of school.
From 2013 to today, two dynamics converge: One, we had our wonderful twins. All of a sudden, we’re paying roughly $25K per year in childcare. Ack!! Two, we got into real estate. We took well-informed risks that turned out well thanks to a mentor who showed us the landlord’s way.
Mastery in our day jobs began to crystallize. Mrs. Cubert went from having very few patients in the beginning to turning them away today. My salary (plus bonus) has more than doubled since 2006.
One thing I should be clear about: When we combined our finances in 2006, our net worth plunged to the negative six figures. Mrs. Cubert had just finished up Chiropractic school, which is not cheap. She’s more than covered her investment in the 12 years since.
When Can I Retire?
That’s the six-thousand dollar question. Yes, we’ve made it to the seven-figure milestone. But it took time, diligence, and a heckuva lot of education along the way.
We’ve been in the same house since 2004 with no plans to buy up to a McMansion anytime soon. I drive a used Honda Fit. Both of our cars are fully paid for. We don’t carry collision or comprehensive insurance. Our cell plans are on Ting, and we haven’t upgraded our phones since 2015.
Our $1.3M swing from 2006 to today is owed in large part to the power of compounding, alongside the power of real estate investing. Half of our net worth is in retirement savings, while the other half resides with tangible assets: our house, four long-term rental houses, and the Airbnb condo. I don’t even really know the value of Mrs. Cubert’s practice, but it’s easily well over six figures.
In fact, with much the same investments and budget three years ago as today, we’ve seen a nearly 70% increase in our net worth. You know exactly why: The stock market and real estate markets have been on a tear. Is another bubble looming?
On paper, reaching a seven-figure net worth is rewarding, but it can be misleading. Relying solely on net worth as a measuring stick can be dangerous.
I am pretty confident about the 4% rule, which says you can safely take 4% of your nest egg each year, and never exhaust your core capital. Still, markets crash and housing bubbles burst.
The emotional, overly cautious side of me needs the stability of cash flow to hedge my bets. In YOUR quest for early retirement, my advice is to diversify. Branch out into a business, real estate, or other cash flow venture to balance your portfolio.
Can you retire early? If you take nothing else from this article, remember that the next 10 years can make a huge difference to your subsequent 20, 30, 40, 50, or even 60 years. Compounding is magic.
Is Early Retirement Good for Your Health?
Long before I picked up on the early retirement scene back in the fall of 2014, I had developed an interest in optimizing life and lifestyle for health and happiness. There are countless books and theories by self-proclaimed experts to be entertained by.
You might learn a thing or two, and even get some inspiration along the way. Titles like Play, The Four-Hour Workweek, and The Blue Zones have all found spots on my bookshelf. I just hope the kids pick them up to leaf through when the time comes.
In a personal quest to land on a lifestyle approach for a long, happy, and healthy life, I’ve come to question the motivation behind early retirement. Is escaping the rat race simply a mirage?
With my proclivity to numbers and statistics, I look for empirical evidence to support theories on lifestyle optimization. When I first read The Blue Zones about five years ago, I was energized by the possibilities of simple lifestyle changes leading to happy and healthy longevity.
Although a few lessons stuck with me, by and large, the lifestyle has remained elusive.
In The Blue Zones, author Dan Buettner set out to find places in the world where people live independently and contentedly into their 90s (or even 100s). They do so at significantly higher rates than folks do in the industrialized western nations.
Buettner found Blue Zones in a mountainous patch of Sardinia, the Mediterranean island of Ikaria (Greece), Nicola (Costa Rica), Okinawa (Japan), and (of all places) Loma Linda (California).
Factors That Contribute to Superior Longevity
- Diet. High in vegetables and omega-3 fats (olive oil, goat/sheep dairy). Zero processed (junk) food. Minimal meat consumption. Lots of beans or tofu. Red wine daily, in moderation (except in Loma Linda, where the Seventh Day Adventists avoid alcohol altogether). A few cups of coffee or tea daily.
- Exercise. Built-in to daily life by walking or hiking to get from A to B. No gym memberships.
- Family. Families stay close and often three generations live under the same roof. No nursing homes.
- Community. Friends grow up together. They remain close. The community looks after each other, as sort of a built-in safety net.
- Purpose. There is no “retirement” per se. There are fields or flocks to tend, grand-kids to nurture, and chores to do.
- Pace. It’s slow. There is no rush. No hustle and bustle in these zones. Daily naps are the norm. Stress becomes hard to manufacture here.
So let’s pose the question: Can you retire early and still faithfully follow the Blue Zones path to healthy longevity?
Early Retirement Allows Time For Slow Food
Now that you have time for better eating habits, you can explore several cookbooks and online recipes from the Blue Zones to help you create a diverse menu. For starters, avoid processed, preservative-laden foods. Go with organic and mineral-rich whole foods.
If you’re familiar with the Primal Blueprint, the Blue Zones diet isn’t too far off. Primal fans are advised to go 80% carb-free but allowing 20% for bread, a little sugar, and dairy. It’s a less rigid approach than full-on Paleo.
Blue Zone’s populaces tend to eat a diet that swings more closely to vegetarians. The Loma Linda population group is strictly vegetarian, a facet of Seventh-Day Adventists.
If you can limit your meat consumption to a couple of days a week, you could add a few years to your life. Okinawans limit their meat consumption to special occasions. Further, at each meal, they only eat until they’re 80% full.
The good news? Some moderate drinking is fine. Ikarians enjoy a glass or two of red wine or maybe a beer with friends. The flavonoids in the wine mixed with the social benefits of friends seems to have a positive effect on health.
We can do slow food regardless of when we retire. But it’s a heckuva lot easier to prepare healthy foods when we have more time. Plus, good eating habits are inextricably linked to good relationships. Maintaining and building strong bonds after we leave the workplace is crucial.
Early Retirement Gives Us More Time to Exercise
Many of us have a cubicle problem. We sit and stare at a screen for nine or more hours. And repeat that sordid habit daily.
We also have a commuting problem. We sit and stare at tail-lights for 30 minutes, some for up to an hour or more.
We could get a gym membership, but the time away from family can create more problems. Blue Zones populations are unaware of cubicles and commutes. They don’t have gym memberships.
How these folks get their exercise is quite simple: Daily living. Tending a garden, walking to the market or to visit family and friends, or tending a flock of sheep up in the hills and mountains. Every day is a new hike in the outdoors. Some might call this a strenuous life, but it’s what gives Blue Zone’s elders the advantage in graceful aging.
Early retirement frees us from the cubicle. It eliminates deadly car commutes. We find time in abundance to get outdoors and walk, hike, or bike. You might even find new and creative ways to get outside when it’s 20 below, and all paths are buried in three feet of snow.
Spending More Time with Family and Less Time with Stress
Our day jobs can make it pretty tough to form a tight family unit. We try our best even with both parents working full time. Spending more time at home with the family, as opposed to being stuck in traffic at 6 PM? Blue Zones living may provide some answers.
Blue Zones communities feature pastoral living. Most of us would find this kind of existence “quaint” or “old fashioned.” It’s idyllic to think about working alongside your kids as they grow up. You teach them the skills that have been handed down for generations. (Sadly, even in Blue Zones the modern lifestyle is creeping in and younger generations are pulling away from tradition.)
The more time spent bonding with family and friends not only strengthens relationships, but it’s also healthy for you. There’s a multi-generational dynamic in Blue Zone communities. Grandmas and grandpas (and even great-grandparents) play a big part in the upbringing of grandchildren.
Early retirement frees time we can now spend time with our families and friends. Even if we’re not tending flocks of sheep with our kids, we can forge strong bonds through all sorts of meaningful activities. This is good for our health and longevity.
We should consider our modern society and rethink how we value and care for our elders. Rather than putting our parents into assisted living arrangements, are there opportunities to instead integrate them more into our lives?
Our friendships often suffer as a result of the culture we have here in the U.S., where a job or school-based migration is common. I moved away for school, then further away to find work in Minnesota.
I feel fortunate to be where I am now. The friends I had growing up seem to be happy where they are now. But I often wonder how much more meaningful life would be if lifelong friends were within miles, not time zones.
In contrast, Blue Zones communities don’t suffer the dispersion and migration of its peoples. Friends stay friends for decades from youth to the grave. Those are bonds we can try to keep in our modern go-go world, but Facebook and phone calls don’t quite hit the mark.
We can do more to strengthen community bonds wherever we end up living. Being active in our communities and building friendships with neighbors is a good first step. Keeping in touch with friends over distance is still very meaningful, even if we miss the benefits of having them near.
Early retirement does free us from the cubicle to spend more time on friendships. Free from the cubicle, we can more easily visit old friends and family living afar. We also have more time to contribute to stronger communities.
Retirement Without a Purpose Is Risky
The centenarian with a purpose in life is a sight to behold. You can rely on him or her to perform any number of chores or tasks. Independent living is expected and the norm.
Blue Zone elders can be found looking after great-grandkids. They’ll be found tending a garden or preparing healthy, whole-food-based meals. There’s a reason to keep going. This is a vital key for those aspiring to retire early.
We have the gift of following others who blog about their post-retirement exploits. We can peer into whether there’s a purpose in how they spend their newfound time.
Mr. Money Mustache is a prime example. He and Mrs. Money Mustache retired at 30, but not to hang out in a hammock all day or play golf.
The pair dedicated their newfound freedom to raising their son, working on projects they enjoy, getting outside a lot. MMM’s blog is less about financial acumen than it is about removing waste from our landfill society and personal growth. Pete is a Blue Zones kinda guy, whether he knows it or not.
Early retirement can help us find our purpose. We don’t all have to take on the burden of saving the planet, but we certainly should aspire to meaningful uses of our time. Helping others while we grow and learn can happen before early retirement, but it is much easier after retirement.
Stop and Smell the Roses
Blue Zones have little regard for clocks. Elders sleep in a little, they stay up a little later, and they take naps.
It sounds like a vacation! Blue Zone elders’ aversion to an oversubscribed hustle and bustle life we know as the norm is a necessity to them. You’d be hard-pressed to find an open shop during the early afternoon hours in Ikaria. It’s nap time.
There are a select few examples of workplaces in the U.S. establishing nap time programs. But I don’t think this will get a ton of traction.
Early retirement can help us better govern our pace of life. Naps and lack of alarm clocks aside, early retirement allows you to disconnect more from the technology that makes our lives a little less real every day.
You’ll certainly give up your cubicle computer screen. Then, it’s up to you whether you continue to live with your head buried in your phone or LED 50” TV. Blue zone folks spend their time connecting with their friends and family in real-time.
Early retirement is a superior means to an end. We simply need to learn about what other societies have achieved and try to apply those lessons.
Instead of the traditional retirement of golf and boredom, we can aspire to help raise our grandchildren, learning, volunteering in the community, remodeling, gardening, hiking, and more.
We need to slow down and take stock in what matters most. It’s not net worth, super saver deals, and side hustles. It’s family, community, and getting back to basics. If living to 100 years old with good health is the reward, then heck, sign me up!
What If You Never Retired?
On a typical evening, we put the kids to bed around 8 o’clock. Exhausted from a long day of work and chores, we spend the next couple of hours watching Netflix or YouTube clips from the comforts of our sofa. What could be better? How about a documentary featuring a never retire philosophy??
After Mrs. Cubert hit the hay, I stayed up to watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi on Netflix. Believe it or not, I came away from that screening with the crazy notion that I should never retire.
In the film, Jiro, an 85-year-old sushi chef and restaurant owner in Tokyo, Japan, shares his secrets to delivering a consistently excellent product over seven decades. He’s a firm believer in perfecting one’s craft to the utmost. He feels it is an obligation to love his work.
Jiro’s life is a case study in how consistent, repetitive execution with small tweaks here and there can lead to mastery and success.
“Once you decide on your occupation,” says Jiro, “you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.”
It’s easy to see why Jiro still works as hard as he does (even now, approaching age 90), from 5 AM to 10 PM each day, repeating many of the same tasks day over day. Simply, he is devoted to his craft. Through endless execution, his craft has come to define who Jiro is. If Jiro were to retire, he’d be, “bored to death.”
I came away from this documentary with a new perspective on work and retirement. Is it taking the easy way out to retire early? Am I simply giving up? Why can’t I be like Jiro, and devote myself to project management and continue to master my craft?
I don’t know the answers to those questions right now. I hope the answers emerge over the next three years, at which point I become eligible to bolt.
Seek Struggle and Resilience, Not a Job You Love
Jiro never suggests that you need to find a job you love. Fact is, he struggled mightily in the beginning, and it took many years for him to achieve a level of success we would define as “making it.” Persistence and resilience are a big part of what got Jiro from a place of hardship to a place of great reward.
Now, despite all of the toil and repetition, there are subtle aspects of the sushi chef gig that make it rewarding work. If you’re looking for a Blue-Zones case study on healthy longevity, look no further than Jiro:
- You’re on your feet all day, and you’re in constant motion. This is HUGE for folks looking to live a long time in good health
- You get to sample the goods. Jiro and his staff ensure quality control by tasting the sushi throughout the day, to avoid putting a bad product in front of customers. In the process, Jiro is consuming some very healthy and very anti-inflammatory seafood, while avoiding junk food.
- You get instant gratification. Jiro’s customers respectfully gush over the extraordinarily simple and flavorful bites put in front of them. Putting forth your best effort (and seeing the results) builds great pride in your work.
- You establish long-term friendships. From the vendors at the fish market to the rice-dealer, and even the restaurant critics… They’ve all bonded with Jiro. And also, of course, have his two sons, even after working under his harsh tutelage for many years.
Why You May Decide to Retire Early
- I want more time with my kids. Jiro admits that he wasn’t a good father, mainly because he simply wasn’t around when his sons were growing up. He was that dedicated to his craft, and by necessity of poverty, he had to be. Fortunately, he was able to bond with his sons once they were old enough to work as apprentices in his restaurant. Still, I know I would have major regrets missing out on being “Daddy”.
- My job is killing me. Traditional desk jobs keep butts in seats all day long. It’s no content when compared to the physical activity of being a sushi chef. Stand-up workstations only get you marginal results. You need to be in motion. If only I could get over the reluctance to do body-weight squats in my cube.
- My boss is an a-hole. Even Jiro had some iffy bosses early in his career, and he reflects on some pretty rough early-career discipline (face slaps!) with cheerful stoicism. Maybe that’s because he is the boss now, and he can implement his vision as he sees fit. Just remember to duck when those five fingers come at ya…
There is a middle ground between the hamster wheel of cubicle life and hanging it up entirely. If I can find work that’s in-line with both of the lists above, I’ll have hit the jackpot.
Is the Never Retire Philosophy Right for You?
Maybe it’s simply managing the rental properties? In that case, I’d have to hope for enough maintenance projects to keep myself “in motion” for a good amount of the time. Ideally, your rental portfolio is passive, with the occasional elbow grease involved.
Where do I stand with this philosophy today? I still plan to keep my early retirement goal, but I’ll certainly be mulling over Jiro and his very stoic approach to work. He is a throw-back who would surely laugh off the notion of early retirement. He uses the word “honorable” to describe work. You’ve got to respect that.
Whether or not his attitude towards work would play out any different if he were a lawyer or a janitor, who knows? One thing I do know: I’m craving some good sushi.
An earlier post from LifeHacker.com does a very nice job of posing these and similar questions. It’s worth checking out. Let’s face it. Work doesn’t always suck.
That said, work sure as heck is a lot harder if you’re extremely incompetent, hard to get along with, or wilt faster than a daisy at high noon in pressure situations. That aside, we can agree that cubicle work sure as hell beats begging for food on the streets, or even watching TV all day.
Then there are times when even the best of us reach our breaking points. Weekends and long workdays, soggy stop-and-go rush-hour commutes, and bosses who just don’t get it.
We’ve been there, done that too. It could be you’re stuck inside those four walls during one of the few beautiful weather days of the year in the polar Midwest when you simply want to be outside appreciating the fresh air.
Looking back over my career, which spans a healthy 23 years, I understand better what makes a working life a tolerable one. Let’s dig even deeper into whether there are worthwhile alternatives to early retirement.
More Vacation Time Plus Experience Equals Reduced Work Stress
Earth-shattering stuff! It’s not a reach to argue that the longer you work and the more you mature, the easier this work nonsense gets. But “Playing the Game” well comes with a hefty price: Years upon years in a cubicle or office.
(I’ve split time between both a cubicle and an office. The only advantage of an office is the ability to pass gas without anyone noticing. Until a colleague pops-in unexpectedly…)
At any rate, if you’ve figured out how to work with difficult people, and you’ve figured out how to avoid really difficult people, most jobs can be tolerable. Sometimes, you might even enjoy the chase. Maybe you get to design and create? Maybe you get to marshall teams, and support them to the finish line of a big project? Sometimes that sh*t is tolerable, and even marginally satisfying.
So that’s the top-left box: Medium Stress. You know the game and can play it well. You even get promoted from time to time and land a few good bosses along the way. Work friends are cool cats, and happy hours here and there build camaraderie.
But you still feel penned-in by it all. There’s never enough time to enjoy your family, the outdoors, and Call of Duty 13. What’s a corporate stiff to do??
The Importance of Time Away From Work
I’m fortunate. The company I work for gives employees almost a month of PTO per year. If you don’t need to use those days for sick days or emergencies, that’s a LOT of vacation. Out of college, I spent the first nine years of my career stuck at a measly TWO weeks of vacation.
More than anything else, such a limited amount of time away from work was a soul crusher. It was the pits of the pits. The armpits of the pits of the pits.
I suppose one hidden benefit of having just two weeks of paid time off was less time to blow money on travel. I took a total of three trips overseas in those nine years. You sure appreciated those trips too. With nearly a month of time off these days, I find it hard to complain.
Still, I wonder if a little bit more PTO would hit a “sweet spot”, encouraging longevity in my career. We’ll explore that a little later on…
Then there’s technology. While technology has in many instances kept us plugged into work after we leave the office, it’s also been a bit of a liberator. How many of you fine readers have worked from home while sick?
There are two, maybe three days a year I’ll put in a half-ass day of “work” while at home suffering from a nasty cold. I’ll join a few key conference calls and respond to important emails while feeling sorry for myself on the sofa with a bowl of chicken noodle soup.
But those are PTO days I get to reserve for vacation. All because of the glory of VPN and high-speed internet. Ask me if I check into work while on vacation…
Alternatives to Early Retirement #1: Keep Working, Danish Style
For all you wusses out there who whine and complain about how awful holding a steady job is, look no further than Denmark. The happiest people on the planet can’t even fathom the concept of early retirement. Why? Because they get a truckload of time off from work (among many other social benefits).
And check this nonsense out, FIRE Team: The Danes are up for more work, even into their 60s! That’s right. Even though the official retirement age is 67, many Danes had been calling it quits at 62. (Though lately that figure has crept up to 65.)
The line that I found most telling from that last linked article was this: “Many jobs have become less arduous, making it more feasible to continue into older age…”
Whoah! Less arduous?? Sign me up!
In Denmark, the average workweek hovers around 40 hours. You show up at 8 or 8:30 and head home at 5 for dinner with the family. Want to know what makes the Danes just that much more willing to work, aside from reasonable hours and all that vacation? They live close to where they work (at least, many of them do*).
That’s one of the hangups from the environmentally sensitive among us. But you won’t find the crush of clown-car commuters in Denmark. Nope. That’s because the Danes ride their bikes EVERYWHERE.
It’s not all roses of course. As the economy has recovered over the last decade, the average Danish commute has crept up to *26 miles. And not surprisingly, many Danish companies are struggling to recruit talent, because the Danes despise long commutes.
As for me? I’m feeling a bit of Danish about my current situation. My annual time off from work is about equivalent (though we don’t get NINE paid holidays here in the states). And my commute is a measly 10 miles, of which I bike about a third of the time.
My work week clocks in at about 43-45 hours, and that’s because I try not to waste time when I’m there. Like the Danes, I set aside no more than a half-hour for lunch, but unlike the Danes, I eat lunch at my desk.
Ultimately, I have very little to complain about. Even stressful days when the craziness abounds is a cakewalk compared to many other jobs or companies I’ve experienced. Since my early retirement journey began back in 2014, I’ve managed to avoid the type of monster projects that made my work-life miserable five years ago.
Alternatives to Early Retirement #2: SemiFIRE
This is where virtually 100% of the FIRE blogging community resides. Many early retirees simply travel the world and enjoy themselves immensely with their newfound freedom. But they are compelled to carve out time to blog about it.
Blogging is a part-time (and sometimes even a full-time) commitment, aka “job”. And in many cases, it helps pay for the groceries. That’s SemiFIRE. (And for those who prefer to only work during part of the year, while enjoying the free-time during the rest, there’s SeasonalFIRE.)
Other so-called early retirees not only blog, but they create new businesses and travel extensively to preach the good word of FIRE Salvation. That’s a wonderful thing, because who wouldn’t want to trade a confining cubicle job for work so exciting? Suze Orman would approve.
SemiFIRE is nothing more than trading your working energy from the cubicle monotony, to something you have more passion about. It’s still working because YOU HAVE A JOB TO DO. We could play with semantics all day. But the point is we in the FIRE club have taken the traditional nature of “retirement” and reshaped it to suit our purposes.
Example: Troy Aikman retired from the NFL (aka, “retired early”), but he picked up a side gig co-hosting televised games soon after. Sounds nice. Very “SemiFIRE” of you, Troy. But do you think his family misses him when he’s off to a different city for telecasts half the year? At the end of the day, we are all simply trading up jobs and calling it “early retirement”.
Now that I’ve gotten the starch out of my early retirement police op-ed, let’s review the merits of semi-retirement:
- You still make money. This is important because you truly don’t know what lies ahead. The healthiest among us could be afflicted with a costly disease. A child could go astray and need substantial financial support. A parent or two could wind up needing intensive palliative care. sh*t ain’t cheap. And to Suze Orman’s point, your million dollars won’t last very long when events like these unexpectedly pop-up.
- You still get benefits. You may have to work a little more than half-time to qualify, but if working 24-32 hours a week provides employer-sponsored healthcare, life and disability insurance, and even a retirement savings plan, why not? I’ll lace up the cycling shoes for four days of work or six-hour shifts. Bring it on.
- You still have a routine and expanded social connections. These are the two things most traditional retirees get wistful about. For many after traditional retirement, they find there’s no driving force to get up and moving each day. No immediate purpose. And they miss interactions with colleagues, customers, etc. Granted, some of those colleagues you can do without, but the working relationships we forge are important. I frankly don’t think we put enough energy into getting to know and appreciate those we work with and spend such a substantial amount of our time with.
- The stress is much less. You’re not the one stuck with a 50 hour work week, on the hook to deliver the “big rock”. Since you’re working a part-time gig, you’re likely not in a highly-crucial, decision-making role. That means when you leave work, the work stays behind. Workplace stress can be a serious detriment to one’s health. But it doesn’t mean you have to quit cold-turkey.
- You can blog, landlord, build sheds, rear children, and still be considered “FIRE”, thanks to “SemiFIRE”. Look at Cubert, doing a complete 180 from that wacky post he delivered back in March. Flip-flop!
Alternative #3: NEVER RETIRE
I can hear the groans already from the peanut gallery:
“But I want to travel the world!”
“I want my freedom!”
“Commutes are choking our lungs and polluting our lakes and streams!”
Trust me. I’m right there with you. I miss travel. I too wouldn’t mind sitting lakeside on a beautiful summer’s Tuesday. And long commutes are terrible. Not only from a safety perspective, but from an environmental one too. Our current work culture in the U.S. SUCKS.
That’s probably the main point of this entire post. If we could learn how to balance work with our lives and our environment, maybe early retirement isn’t the only option left to us…
Consider some other examples. I’ve written about Jiro above. The 90-something wonder from Japan who loves his full-time work crafting sushi, on his feet, all day long. Someone give that man a Yebisu!
I can guarantee he doesn’t get stuck in rush hour traffic (he takes the train) and I’m pretty sure he’s reconciled a purpose and struggle that’s meaningful to HIM. If I had to guess, I’d say his purpose has been the perfection of an ancient craft as his art form and passing that craft down to his sons.
You just read about the early retirement connection with Blue Zones’ longevity. Able-bodied 90-somethings are off herding their sheep up and down hillsides in Sardinia. Able-bodied great-grandmothers are tending their gardens, watching over children, and preparing meals for friends and family. There are even 90-something cardiac surgeons still performing operations:
Do you think all of them are hating life and whining about their work? Nah, probably not. And I suspect it’s because they too, like Jiro, have reconciled their struggles as a core function of their existence. There’s a gratitude embedded in what they do, and it likely stems from their ability to provide and sustain. Swirl that around and gargle for a minute.
Early retirement is rarely looked at as anything other than a glorious achievement. You’ve made it. You put in the time, toil, and effort, and voila! It’s finished. Time to soak up the sun and kick back, maybe read a book or two, go for a bike ride, see the world… You know, fulfill Maslow’s Hierarchy of early retirement needs?
Some might suggest that once you’ve reached this pinnacle of no longer being bound to a cubicle, there’s little else you need to feel fulfilled. Think about it. You’ve got the resources to feed yourself, clothe yourself, and keep a roof over your head. Arguably, you’ve made some friends along the way, and maybe you have a partner to enjoy life’s twists and turns with.
As I approach the stage of my career where I could take it or leave it, these are the kind of thoughts that occupy my mind. Sometimes the pressure and stress of work get me daydreaming about quitting. And other times, when I feel a little appreciation and camaraderie, I think to myself that a career can be rewarding too.
Let’s explore whether early retirement creates its hierarchy of new needs. Needs that might leave us longing for something else, even after we’ve reached that magical “finish line”.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Early Retirement Needs
Look a little further below at the original Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you’ve retired early, then certainly the Feeling of Accomplishment has been met (assuming hanging up the “career spurs and saddle” mean anything to you). For most, at the moment of early retirement, you’ve likely found love and maybe even have a kid or two (or three, or more).
There could be some random things on your list of “big things to accomplish”, like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or running a marathon. Maybe you want to write a book?
Regardless, you’ve met some key milestones in life by the time early retirement rolls around. The degrees on your wall, the stamps in your passport, and the time you’ve given to help others – all boost esteem to some extent.
Self-actualization is the trickiest of all. I’d wager it’s a small percentage of people who spend the amount of energy they’d like in the peak of Maslow’s pyramid. I for one would consider myself fortunate to have lived a life where I had the wherewithal to worry about my esteem/accomplishments. Sadly, for too many on this planet, just meeting basic needs like food, water, rest, and security is a never-ending quest.
Abraham Maslow’s original intent back in 1943 was to illustrate a successive climb up a ladder of ever-changing needs. The assumption then was that you fully attain a level before moving up to the next, and so on.
Reality is more complicated, and Maslow eventually admitted that it’s natural for one to move up and down the pyramid as circumstances change. Wars, famine, and disaster can all bring us down to the needs we had come to take for granted.
Does Retirement Help You Find Contentment?
Interesting question right there. For this, we’ll focus on the top three levels of the pyramid, since it’s assumed that having F-You money means you’ve got your Physiological and Safety needs met. We’ll come back to this since people fret about whether they’ve saved enough to call it quits early.
To chew on:
- When you retire early, are you freeing up time for relationships that matter the most? Whether it’s your spouse, your kids, other relatives or friends? Or, is early retirement mutually exclusive of fulfilling the Love/Belonging level of the pyramid?
- When you retire early, have you achieved the goals you’d set out for yourself (Esteem level)? Or, does early retirement allow you the time and energy to finally start that small business, write the book, or train for that half marathon? On the flip, are you giving up the income you think you’ll need to achieve certain goals?
- And for the biggie – Self-actualization: Does early retirement allow you the time and energy to achieve your full potential? Another way to ask this question is this: Does your day job get in the way of letting you become the person you want to be??
It feels to me that on the surface at least, early retirement would certainly free up time and energy for pursuits we often let languish. Given time, we might get to travel with intent — i.e., visit a place for more than a week or two.
Given even more time, we could train for that marathon or practice tennis serves that lands in the box. (The latter is something I managed to do during the year I was laid off.)
Back to chewable question number 1, we financial bloggers have quite a community. Many will venture off to FinCon every year, or, some of the many regional retreats/camps of like-minded souls. Friendships and real community bonds (a “tribe” if you will) continue to grow in our space.
So from a belonging standpoint, early retirement is becoming less of a rarity. It’s no longer the case that you’re the only one taking a walk around the block at 10 AM while everyone else you know is toiling away at the office…
Having put these thoughts down, I’m wondering now if early retirement is merely a manifestation of Maslow’s Hierarchy or an enabler of it? Or both? It truly depends on the person. In my journey, I’ve come across many examples of self-actualized people who never retire. So maybe, just maybe, retirement has nothing to do with it?
Cubert’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Early Retirement Needs
Let’s assume that regardless of how you feel about early retirement and all the promises it holds, you take the plunge. What does your pyramid look like now? Have you truly elevated yourself up a level, or simply replaced old needs with new ones? Or more troubling, have you not changed your situation at all, or made it worse, unintentionally backsliding a level (or two)?
Okay. Okay. This is, granted, a Fisher-Price version of the classic Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but it’s MY pyramid, and I’m sticking with it. We’re going to take a leap of faith that early retirement presents a separate set of needs after financial independence goals have been met.
Starting from the bottom and working our way up… The Money part? Well, that should be obvious. In early retirement, we’re now consumed with the ever-present question of whether we’ve squirreled away enough money to last until our end. If money continues to haunt you after dropping out of the rat race, you probably shouldn’t have dropped out.
On the other hand, if you’ve established lucrative side hustles and have stashed a significant amount of coin away, then the Money part is an easier rung to climb. The Health equation comes next. Healthcare is not a public good. Far from it. Better to have your insurance coverage figured out and better yet, have some healthy habits to keep you humming along. Now, go pick up a copy of Blue Zones and call me in the morning.
In all seriousness, the “Health rung” of Cubert’s mighty pyramid is where early retirement starts to yield some real promise. You’ve cleared the money hurdle, now you have an opportunity to make hay with all that time and newfound energy. The time is NOW to start hitting that home gym, hopping on the bicycle, and turning your day-to-day life into one of sheer physical exhaustion. You’ll never sleep better.
Relationships can now be cultivated with a mind and body at peace. You’re able to give more of yourself with newfound time and energy. There are books to read and mentors to build your wisdom. THIS is the hardest rung of the ladder because it’s filled with riddles. BUT it is also the most rewarding.
Once you get your shit together with money and health, make Relationships your singular focus. Without proper “care and feeding” in this arena, regrets begin to emerge later on…
Early Retirement “Icing on the Cake”
Most of us would be pretty satisfied with meeting money, health, and relationship needs in early retirement. After that? Well, there’s always more to be desired. In an age of travel with relative ease, Mobility is an understandable “need”.
We had a whipsaw blizzard just come through Minnesota this past week. And it reminded me (as spring often does) how much location plays a role in my yearnings and present state of wistfulness. The freedom to move and travel are luxuries.
Sure, many with means can move or are forced to move for work, but it takes added money and time to travel on a whim or set up seasonal homes. Mobility for me is in constant competition with Relationships (and I haven’t even retired early!)
Time will tell, but I’d bet that we’ll keep Minneapolis in the mix, as it’s a location with decent roots established. But I can guarantee the winters will be spent elsewhere. Arizona, Nevada, Florida, anywhere but here. Mobility is a luxury, but until I’ve mastered the basic tenets of Buddhism, I’ll continue to piss and moan about snow in April.
The final layer of icing is having a purpose. Get to this rung and you’re in a supreme position to give more of your time, energy, and resources to others in need. IF you’re less of a whiner than me, you might achieve mobility, but choose to stay put and devote even more energy to relationships and good causes.
Ultimately, you’ve found peace: Peace with your decision to leave the workforce, peace with others, and peace with your situation and limitations. And in that peace, you’re able to reflect and feel not an ounce of regret because of the work you’ve done to prepare yourself, and the investments you’ve made in relationships that matter.
Summing It All Up
It’s entirely possible to work for several decades and still achieve Cubert’s Maslow’s Hierarchy. Entrepreneurs and high achievers with a passion and dedication to their craft just might find the balance they and their orbits require to meet the pyramid’s pinnacle.
The nut to crack for most of us is this: Careers are not easy to navigate over the long term. At most points, it’s a challenge. And it’s a further challenge to somehow balance the hierarchy of needs when so much of your time and energy are locked up in your career hamster wheel. 32-hour workweek, anyone??
The punchline? Whether or not you work a cubicle job, -a- hierarchy of needs will still be there. The question always comes back to this: Does early retirement help you transcend a level, or does it simply create an entirely new set of needs you hadn’t anticipated?
Maybe at work tomorrow you’ll find time to have coffee with a colleague/friend you haven’t talked to in a while. And you’ll ride your bike to work?
I’m anxious to read your answers to this question in the comments. Since my journey began four years ago, I’ve personally waffled on the question A LOT. It would appear that the happiest nations (Denmark and other Scandinavian countries) are not even aware of early retirement, and get along just fine without it.
Why wouldn’t they? The longest living, healthiest among us continue to work until their time on earth is done.
Maybe the working aspect isn’t correlated to happiness and longevity with these societies. Absent work, what if they’re still happy and long-lived? The question is then, what it is that makes them so happy and healthy? And why are we so hell-bent on early retirement, if the rewards aren’t what they are so often advertised to be?
Please share other alternatives to an abandoned cubicle in the comments below!