Redefining “Retirement” Down To Nothing

Mr. Money Mustache is at it again. Here he is explaining at length how he “retired at 30” and how you can too! Maybe.

For anyone familiar with the principles of personal finance and investing, my trick was unimpressive and easily reproducible: Just spend much less than you earn and pour the difference into efficient index funds. When your collection of investments reaches 25 times your annual spending, you’re done.

Occasionally an angry heckler with credit card balances and car loans will insist that my impossible tale is all fabricated, which is sort of like a person who has trouble climbing 10 flights of stairs insisting that a 200th-place marathon runner must have cheated his way across the finish line because nobody could possibly run that far. Like running 26 miles, accumulating enough money for early retirement is not really easy, but it’s pretty simple.

Mmhmm. This has been said before, but it bears repeating: “spend less than your earn and invest the rest” doesn’t work for everyone. The same way not everyone can go from couch-to-5K, some of us start with massive debts, liabilities, health struggles, complicated family situations, and earning limitations. There are millions of millennials around, for example, who would love to spend less than their earn and invest the remainder, but their incomes instead go toward paying down student loans and moving all the time because their landlords kick them out and/or keep raising the rent. If they have stable jobs at all.

MMM does not acknowledge these complexities. What he’s selling is more of a individualistic You Can Do It vision, a bootstraps approach to making “work” work for you. Maybe it’s because I’m feeling jaundiced today, but it’s hard not to focus on the flaws.

What if work were something that you did only when it worked for you? If you could go at it with gusto on certain days, or even certain seasons or years, but then shift to other things for a while when your priorities changed? You might spend most of your 20s burning up the corporate ladder or being the workhorse that keeps a startup company in the black. But then your 30s might be mostly consumed by bringing up young children, your 40s might see you starting more companies or reclaiming your youth as a touring rocker, and your 50s and 60s are yet to be charted. Now that I’ve met a large number people who have actually followed this path, I can see that financial independence isn’t so much about freedom from work. It is more about freedom to do your best work, without money getting in the way.

This is what I’m really describing when I talk about early retirement. It’s not really retirement at all, but that’s because I don’t think anybody should truly retire in the old sense of the word — swearing off all forms of paid activity in favor of a dramatic increase in television watching and golf playing. Creation of new ideas, new enterprises, or new things is the biggest joy of being alive. …

1) Some people really do want to retire “in the old sense of the word.” They want to relax. Not everyone is driven to be a creator. Does MMM really not think “anybody should truly retire” in that way? Rewarding yourself by chilling out may not work for him, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still function as a legitimate goal.

2) As it happens, a downbeat but important personal essay on the Toast from today points out that trying to change gears in your 50s and 60s might be harder than you think.

In my previous life, I taught high school theater and English in Connecticut, a state that does not pay into the Social Security system; because I only started teaching in my forties, I would have had to teach until my late eighties in order to earn my pension. So when I left, I left empty-pocketed, anticipating that I would easily find work. I had been a teacher, a producer and director of theater and film, a writer with a following; but here in New York, my history and my age conspired against me. Because I taught, my prospective employers assumed that I couldn’t “do.” All my other experience was overlooked, and I wound up getting a job as a New York sightseeing guide atop a double-decker bus — an open double-decker bus, uncooled in the summer, unheated in the winter. …

As has happened so often since I reached this state of advancing age, I was reminded of how audacious it is to want to remain productive after the reproductive organs have retired.

Finding it difficult to be taken seriously, the author decides to pursue an MFA at Columbia. She continues to encounter some skepticism there but also plenty of encouragement. It will be interesting to see what she does next, after her post-graduate work. Will she continue to face a hostile or indifferent world, which has a hard time accepting that a person can still have ambition — and talent, and worth — after 60?

Back to MMM: I’m not the only one to be a bit taken aback by his declarative tone and his assumptions that what worked for him could work for anyone else who is similarly willing to be frugal. Lyz Lenz captured the frustration well on Twitter.

This guy didn’t retire. He quit his job and worked from home, like a lot of moms I know. Like me.

— lyz lenz (@lyzl) July 27, 2015

She was responding in large part to this section:

in my own case I started just with the goal of being a parent, but then ended up starting a house-building company to pursue my lifelong love of building things. Then I learned that the daily stress and schedule of big, multi-person projects was still too much for me at the time, so it evolved into a boutique carpentry operation that still does local projects to this day. Other ventures have come and gone, but none of them were done because we needed the money. That is my definition of a modern retirement: the activities you pursue once you are done searching for money.

So yeah, you too can retire at 30! If you were privileged to begin with and your definition of retirement has little relationship to the classic definition. Also if you’re a dude. That seems to help.

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