Early retirement has been good, in general. I reached my goal of financial independence after years of frugality and hard work. It’s fun being here and writing about the details. But, while I’d like to say I’m so much happier now, in reality, I’m probably not…
Don’t get me wrong: I have a great life. Waking up each morning with personal and financial freedom beats the alternative. But the years before of raising a family and working a steady job also had their rewards, even though some of the joys were too subtle and familiar to appreciate at the time.
Yes, retiring is great fun for most people, at first. You’ve finally reached your life-long goal. You have all the time and money you require. No more answering to a boss. No more meetings. No more deadlines. Life is a full-time vacation—travel, learn, enjoy. What could be hard about that?
But, once you’re fully settled in, retirement can be a scary proposition. Fact is, you’ve closed out a major chapter of your life. And the next one is entirely up to you. Nobody else can take on that responsibility. Meanwhile, the final chapter, just over the hill, doesn’t look like much fun….
As I explore in my recent book, most of us can achieve enough financial certainty to make the retirement decision. But, when you’ve got 30 to 40 or more years to live, you can never be absolutely certain that your money will last. You will have some money concerns in retirement, just as you did earlier in life. If you plan well, those concerns will be about lifestyle tradeoffs, rather than about feeding yourself. But they may never fully go away.
When you retire, especially early, there is the danger of leaving unearned money, and what it could buy, on the table. Fact is, there are some areas where you’ll have fewer money concerns while you’re still working full time. For example, if you spend on a vacation, or a home improvement, or have a health emergency, you’re likely to feel you can always work another year to pay for it. Once retired, you no longer have that option.
Yes, you can work part-time in retirement to relieve some financial concerns. But don’t count too heavily on that plan. I have an ideal retirement gig—writing a blog on my own schedule. But it took two years to begin turning a small profit. And my pay rate in retirement is a fraction of what I made in the corporate world. Plus, I work far fewer hours. The end result: In a good year, this blog brings in about one-fifth of my previous salary. And who knows how long I’ll keep it up? Conclusion: If there is a big financial hole to fill in your portfolio, part-time work in retirement is not the solution!
You will still need to deal with fears of the future in retirement. No matter how well you’ve prepared, you will probably have fewer resources to deal with what comes than if you were working full time. You will have to accept, to some degree, the lifestyle you planned at your retirement date. Sure, if the market does well, you might be able to splurge. But better not count on it. Rather, prepare to have your lifestyle capped in your golden years. It could even be reduced. For some, that might feel like a trap. But, for others, it is a welcome simplification.
Retirement, at whatever age, is preceded by financial independence. That sounds good, on paper. What could be wrong with being able to support yourself without working? But, as Todd Tresidder points out, there are downsides: “…one of the little-discussed aspects of attaining financial freedom is how your life changes from pre-determined to self-determined. You don’t get to follow the default script imposed by society because financial freedom obliterates the script and leaves a void in its place.”
It’s up to you to fill that void. Having the wealth to live however you choose means you’re out of excuses for those parts of your life that aren’t measuring up. You can’t blame your job for being out of shape or unhealthy. You can’t blame your kids for not pursuing a creative passion. You can’t blame the pressure to climb the corporate ladder for not taking time to develop relationships. The responsibility for what you become now rests squarely on your own shoulders.
Traveling and recreation are common retirement pursuits. They are certainly an important element of happiness. But they aren’t the whole story. It is exciting to explore beautiful new places. But, after a while, the good times and beautiful scenery may not be enough, unless they serve a meaningful purpose. Most of us need more….
When you lose the career structure and purpose you’ve enjoyed for so many years, you will have to invent and supply your own. Maybe it will be related to your previous profession—consulting or speaking—or maybe it will be something completely different—volunteering or pursuing a creative passion. The challenge is trying to stay relevant to a society that is increasingly younger than you. It’s not easy, but there are many examples of “elder statesmen,” from all walks of life, public and personal, who have remained vital and relevant to the end.
I’ve come to see that every stage of life has its joys and challenges. There is no point in either rushing or resisting retirement. Retirement is not inherently better than what came before. It’s just different. Despite the downsides of retirement, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
Darrow Kirkpatrick is a software engineer and author who lived frugally, invested successfully, and retired in 2011 at age 50. He writes regularly about saving, investing and retiring on his blog CanIRetireYet.com. His latest book is Can I Retire Yet?