Especially in the dog days of summer, you may find yourself stuck in an office somewhere, longing for the summer vacation in your past or the days of relaxation in your future. Retirement is a loaded concept, and some people worry about boredom, but for the most part "retirement" seems to evoke dreams of exotic travels, sufficient sleep, and pleasure projects pursued with tireless abandon. So when do we get to cash in on this part of the American dream? Apparently, it's possible to retire in your 30's with some good luck and careful planning, as one anonymous and thrifty couple known as the Frugalwoods recently proved (via Forbes). But even if you can retire early, should you? I'm going to go ahead and say that you probably shouldn't
Especially since many millennials have parents who struggled or are struggling to retire on time (thanks for nothing, 401ks), retirement itself has maybe taken on a magical alluring quality like so many things that are just out of reach. But you don't have to have some overblown Protestant work ethic to think that work offers most people plenty of value, into middle age and even beyond. A lifestyle like the Frugalwoods' is possible – you, too, could probably find a way to save over two thirds of your income if you really wanted. But not retiring early – or ever – is even more likely to be the right choice. Here's why.
Work Means Money
At the risk of being totally obvious, working means you make money. One major cause of Americans' stagnant finances is that many Americans have been working less lately. Some of these are the underemployed victims of a sluggish economy, and others are doing it by choice. Nonetheless, the quickest and most obvious path to financial stability is finding a job and working it.
Planning Tends To Fail
Some tiny slice of the America public is well-suited for long stretches of work followed by long stretches of retirement, but I'm going to guess it's not most of us. Financial planning is difficult and requires the strenuous exercise of one's powers of organization and self-control. For example, as few as half of Americans are prepared to cover an emergency $400 expense using savings, were such an expense to arise right now. Even if more people could manage to save huge percentages of their income in preparation for an early retirement, most would blow it later. There's not necessarily any shame in this, I'm certainly amongst the financially under-disciplined, but it requires a different strategy for the future – one that includes more continuous income.
Re-entering The Workforce Is Hard
Just ask a mom who took a work break to have her kid: re-entering the workforce is really hard. If you retire early and decide you hate it (or overspend your savings), the stakes are high: that ok-if-not-perfect job you had in your 20's and 30's won't be waiting for you when you want to come back. If your work-life balance is way out of whack and you're still early in your career, try saving aggressively while doing freelance or part-time work instead. This will help to keep your options open.
People Are Living Longer
Retirement is sort of a holdover from a time when people died younger, and got sicker faster, than the people of today. It was supposed to be a decade or so of rapidly-declining health and usefulness, not several decades of prime time without structure or purpose or productivity. You aren't living like your grandparents in any other way... why would you structure your life like theirs either?
Your Dreams Are Misleading
Sure, an extended vacation would be nice, but people are happier when they're actively making and doing things than when they're consuming them. Moreover, much of the fun of traveling is actually in anticipating and then remembering the trip, not just in taking it. You should spend on experiences instead of things, especially social experiences, but early retirement is likely to put you out of touch with your peer group. You're imagining that a retirement of leisure and travel will be amazing, but it might actually make you less happy. Many retirees are happy because they're old, not because they're retired.
People Are Lazy
Ok, so if people are happier actively doing things than consuming them, why not retire early and then spend your time on important projects? Forgive my bluntness, but get real. Most people are incredibly lazy. Time use surveys show that the non-employed spend a huge chunk of their time watching television (and less time doing things like caring for others or volunteering). Your paid work might not exactly align with your passions, but at least it's keeping you doing something and may open other opportunities in the future. The saying "if you want something done, ask a busy person" exists for a reason: activity breeds activity, and sloth breeds sloth.
Stuff Is Great
You don't have to be some kind of mindless materialist to enjoy buying things in moderation. Mrs. Frugalwoods doesn't buy makeup, and she and her husband never buy prepared or packaged foods, for instance. They value an early retirement over these conveniences, and do a ton of work and make sacrifices to get there. Me? I'd rather have a life fully intermixed between work and pleasure. Whereas they see pleasure purchases as constraining, I see them as rewarding. And the Frugalwoods pay in time (couponing, shopping around, etc.) what I pay in money. There isn't necessarily a right and wrong, but think hard – just like every purchases isn't necessarily happiness-inducing, neither is every foregone purchase.
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