Freedom: Re-thinking Early Retirement

For my generation and the coming generations, I would like to pose an alternative to the “wonderful” idea of early retirement. This alternative is not new, and it was not discovered by me, but it is embraced by many communities, including minimalists, money mustachians, and financial independents. Whenever I ask people my age where they see themselves in twenty, thirty or forty years, many of them respond with a goal of retiring early. That means that between ages 40 through 60, depending on their current financial situation, or their belief in their ability to get out of financial dependence on their job, or their optimism (you pick), they plan to quit their jobs and have a house already purchased, and plan to spend the rest of their days vacationing on a yacht they may have bought or raising their grandkids. This is what our parents did and our grandparents did, and it sounds like a lovely life, albeit too late to make the most of your prime years. But it isn’t for me, and maybe some of you are scratching your heads and wondering if there is another way.

There’s a theory, which I’d call my life mission or goal. Theoretically, this life mission may work out for me, and possibly for you. When I was first asked the question of where I want to see myself in 30-40 years, it was my financial planner asking. Being a financial meeting, my first answer was that I saw myself out of financial debt, and with financial stability. I also said I saw myself working (still) a few days a week, and pursuing all my hobbies and interests on the days I have off. I saw myself physically fit enough to enjoy life, and continuing to travel the world. I would like to have the time to see my family and friends frequently, and never feel dependent on someone else financially or physically. That sounds a lot like retirement, minus the working part, right?

So he clarified and said, “Do you see yourself retiring early?” I had an answer that flew off my tongue before I could even think. “I do not want to retire until I can no longer physically work.” I think that is a very good answer (and not because I was the one who came up with it). Time itself is not the decision-maker, and neither is age. It is our ability to continue pursuing a passion. Now, we all know that dentistry has a short life span for many, because of physical ailments that result from the profession, usually involving back aches and side aches and neck pain and carpel tunnel, and the list goes on. But notice that I did not say I saw myself practicing dentistry, but rather, I said I saw myself working. I believe that working into our 60’s and 70’s will keep us mentally active, physically fit, and spiritually alive, at a time in our lives when we need it most. But if we are financially stable, or hopefully more than stable by that age, then money will never dictate what we do. And once money does not dictate what you do, work can become whatever passion you want to pursue. I mean, ideally work should be your passion now. Who knows if I will still be passionate about dentistry in 30 years?! Quite possibly, I will be doing part-time dentistry for a very long time. I mean, working one day a week as a dentist is not a bad gig. But hey, I could dream big and think, maybe I will be working as a barista at that time. Or making clay pots to sell at a store. Who knows where life will lead me, or you.

But how is working into the wee years of your elderly life sustainable? Burn- out is something a lot of dentists experience. A few years out of dental school, and many of them already hate their jobs. And they’re going to do this for the rest of their career??! It’s sustainable if you never experience burn out (duh!). This can be accomplished in many ways. For example, you could work less hours than the grueling 5-day work week now. Or if you still very much love your job, invest in delving deeper into the practice. The more you pursue a passion, the less it feels like a weight that you are dragging around. Avoid doing something just to go through the motions. Really love your job in its entirety and it won’t bring you down. Most people experience burn out because their job is physically exhausting, without the mental, emotional, or spiritual reward. In other words, they no longer feel passionate towards what they do. When you do experience burn out, switch to doing the next thing you love. Motivation and inspiration are key to fueling your drive to continue working late into your life time.

You may be asking, “Okay, so when do we get to enjoy our lives?” My answer is simple. How about now? What if, instead of early retirement, you do partial retirement, starting now? You get to enjoy life for the entirety of your life, not just for the last little bit when you’re tired and want to sit on a rocking chair on the porch and stare out all day. Think of all the pros of starting to live now. You’re young enough to invest in your future physical fitness by working out now rather than sitting in a desk all day, which will prolong your health for more years down the road. You get to balance work and play. It can’t be all play like in the other model of retirement. Even playing all the time gets boring for me. I have to feel like there is some direction in my life, like I am getting somewhere. It’s the only way I feel alive. I think retirement could possibly turn me into a sack of flour (metaphorically) and bore me to death. So, you gain balance in your life. You get to travel the world, while you can still hike, or at least walk five miles in the city center. You get to spend real quality time with your family, instead of squeezing in time in the morning, before work, and at night, when you’ve exhausted all your energy into your passion. So many parents miss out on their child’s life, because they have to work in order to provide for that child. Maybe we need to start re-thinking of the word provide. Provide food and shelter, sure, but after that what? Time and love. Seriously. Now some of you may give me the money argument. The “you’re-so-lucky-you’re-a-dentist-and-you-make-bank” argument. I started my dental career later than my peers because of the additional schooling with a debt of over half a million dollars, equivalent to a mortgage loan that many of my friends have already spent four years paying off. If anything, right now, I am at the same place as you, or worse, in terms of net worth. But it’s the way you think about money that will really save you. At the end of the day, money is just money, and things are just things, right? Another blog post to come on re-thinking how we view money. Maybe we should start re-thinking everything.

Now I know we are all different, and yes, some may continue to dream about the glorious days of relaxing for years on end. But I tried that already, when I had the gap after dental school waiting for my license. And it drove me nearly insane. Even travelling for three weeks in a gorgeous country with a lot of planned activities every day made me long for something more. I don’t think I can do the early retirement thing. More importantly, I don’t want to miss out on my life. The present moment is the most valuable to me. And hey, I do all the things my working friends do. I am close with my co-workers, and hang out with them outside of work. I practice my skills and learn something new every day at work. I still have set hours that I clock in and clock out for. I work out before or after work. But I also do everything my retired aunts, uncles, and grandparents do. I travel frequently. I dedicate time to pursue additional hobbies. I can schedule coffee mornings and mid-day lunch dates with my family and friends. This weekend, I plan to sit on lake front property and enjoy fall weather on a boat surrounded by family, which is what you dream of too, except I’m not sacrificing my body to get to that point and I am going to do it now, thirty years before you. Then again, perhaps you’ll decide to do it too. Wouldn’t that be nice?

I must admit. There has to be a sense of simplicity to this lifestyle. You can’t go on imagining that you will become a multi-millionaire this way and swim in pools of cash. That kind of lifestyle probably will require you to work tirelessly during your prime years. But give me the simpler one, and I’ll be a happier person. It’s just an alternative, it’s not the way. There is no ideal way to live life. Just an ideal life for you.

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