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Retirement: Death Trap or Freedom?

"I don't want to stop working"

"I love my job"

"I don't want to retire and waste away"

When I first started learning about the FIRE movement (Financial Independence, Retire Early) in 2014, I spent a lot of time talking about it with my friends, colleagues, acquaintances, sometimes complete strangers. (If you know me you won't find this surprising at all!)

I was shocked by how many people were resistant to the idea of retiring early. It took me some time to sort it out, but what I eventually came to realise is that many people have a very fixed idea of what retirement means. To my friends who actually said the above quotes to me, retirement means quitting, sitting on your couch or on a beach somewhere, and being on perpetual vacation with nothing much to do. It's basically retiring from life.

No wonder they don't like the idea of retiring early.

If retirement is for old people who are waiting to die, then why not go financially YOLO and spend everything now to enjoy the present?

I take a different view. For me, retirement means financial freedom. Releasing the financial chains that have tied me to employers since I was a teenager. Retiring from my job as a teacher means having the time and energy to add value to the world on my own terms.

Imagine if your housing, food, healthcare, and transportation were all free.

If you no longer needed money to survive: How would that change your life?

  • Would you stay in a job that demands 40-60+ hours of your time each week? or would you scale back?

  • Would you work for a company or start your own?

  • Would you keep doing the same type of work or would you develop a different passion?

  • Would you want to work at all? or would you spend your time with people you love doing things you enjoy?

The point is that when you're free from economic pressure, whatever you choose to do is truly your choice.

Sure, I have always had at-will employment agreements. In theory I could quit any of my jobs at time, but for most of my life, I couldn't go a month without a paycheck. I needed money, so I needed a job. I spent my twenties and most of my thirties very much chained to work. If I didn't work, I wouldn't have a place to live, food to eat, or money to spend. Life without work would be impossible at worst or highly stressful at best.

If you're trapped in a system where you have to work for money in order to survive, you're not really free.

In my 20s I didn't have the freedom to try out entrepreneurship, freelancing, or developing my passions because I had to spend most of my waking hours on the clock for someone else.

My undergraduate degree was in Fine Arts, and though I wanted to become a working artist (and eventually make money at it) there was no economic path for me to do so. I had to pay my student loans, rent, car payment, and just as there wasn't much time off the clock, there wasn't much money left over to buy paint and canvas. Working took up all of my time and energy, and didn't give me much capital to spend.

Eventually I found a path to better economic prospects by going back to school to become a science teacher (teaching art wasn't an option in the program I did). This was a wise economic decision, but it was made very much under financial pressure. I never aspired to be a teacher, I did it because it was a dependable income for someone fresh out of graduate school. It wasn't a free choice.

While I did come to love teaching, I knew teaching was my job, I had to do it for money. I was a kind teacher, and I love working with young people. I got a lot of meaning out of teaching, but it used me up. My time and energy were spent each day on meeting someone else's KPIs.

In 2013, when my partner suggested to me that we save up to take a year off to travel the world, I had never even considered anything like it.

I had no idea it was possible to not work.

He and I each went for a year without buying anything other than food, we each cut back our expenditures so that we could save over half of our income. We would use our savings to backpack around the world the following year. It was hard, but because there was a big exciting goal in the future, I never felt deprived. I was highly motivated because I wanted to freedom of a year of travel, even if I knew I would have to return to work the following year.

If possible, I highly recommend taking time off to travel or pursue your passions. It changes your perspective and lets you see what life can offer.

But it's not easy psychologically.

You lose the structure, community, and purpose* that work gives you. The transition is hard. I think this may be why many people get restless on vacation, because they miss the structure of their day, the community they have at home, and the meaning they get from contributing at work. I think this may be where some of the fear of retirement (rightly) comes from.

The science is inconclusive on whether retirement is good or bad for your mental and physical health. My personal take is that it can be hard to make the adjustment from a life built around employment to a life where you have to build your own structure, but once you do build the life you want, it's better on all counts. Hands down.

Do you want to save up for a year of travel? or get started on your path to financial independence? Let me help you.

*A big shout out to my friend John Henzell who hit FI several years ago. He told me that he learned in his retirement that what you really need in order to be happy is structure in your day, a community of people to interact with, and a sense of purpose.

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