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I have been retired for over a year now. I absolutely love retirement – indeed, I’ve never been happier, and I often say that I’m living a version of my dream life. Nothing is perfect, though, and I thought I’d tell you about the dark side of early retirement. Prepare to take off the rose-colored glasses.
You Will Be Ambushed By An Identity Crisis
When you first retire, you will probably be carried away on a cloud of joy. The freedom will be all-consuming. You’ll marvel at every little change in your life. No alarm clocks. No work clothes. Here you are spooning ice cream into your mouth at 2pm on a Wednesday while in your sweatpants. This is all so cool. But at some point — maybe a few weeks, maybe a month later — feelings of restlessness will creep in.
We are creatures who need meaning and purpose. You’ve just lost yours. I’m talking partially about the part work played in your identity, but I’m talking even more about the fact that you’ve been working for years to achieve a financial goal and now it’s done. Over. Kaput.
Let’s talk about each in more detail.
Job and Identity
Even if you say you’re not attached to your job, if you live in the US a lot has been done to get you to unconsciously absorb it into your identity. When I left my job at a high-flying finance firm, I thought I would have no issues with identity. I had been thinking about retirement for ages. I knew with certainty that I didn’t want to work full-time at an investment firm. And yet I was hit hard by its loss. It was an easy way to generate respect when I met someone new. I’m a senior member of the team at a multi-billion dollar firm. I broker multi-million dollar deals. My insta-cred was now gone.
Furthermore, I had spent years on the corporate track gunning for promotions and raises. Suddenly saying that that stuff doesn’t matter creates cognitive dissonance no matter how much you’ve “prepared” for it. I would be watching Netflix in the afternoon and I’d think, “Was this worth $1000?” Or I’d spend a span of days reading bad romance novels and realize “My old colleagues made five, ten, fifteen thousand dollars in this time period. Have I contributed five, ten, or fifteen thousand dollars of value to my myself or the world?”
Try enjoying life with thoughts like that.
Meaning and Identity
For me, those thoughts then fed into questions about broader meaning. How could I know looking back after my first year that I had lived a year worth living? I was giving up so much money for this time…how would I know I had used the time wisely? I imagined a year of myself picking up various hobbies. Quilting for a month. Felting for another. Horseback riding. Knot-making. Laser-cutting metal signs. While that sounded fun, it rang hollow in the meaning category for me.
I don’t have a how-to guide on how to navigate this process. Everyone must go through their own personal struggle. I can tell you that coming out of it on the other side has left me a more confident, substantive, happier human being. In short, while you might not choose to deal with this of your own volition, at least take heart that it will repay you tenfold in overall happiness when it’s done.
Your Body Becomes Unused To Stress
After the initial transition, it is likely you will design your life so as to minimize stress. The way water flows naturally down the path of least resistance, you will find your life naturally drifts away from stressful interactions. You get to visit stores when there are no lines, and no one elbowing you as you stroll through the produce aisle. No honking horns on the freeway because there’s no traffic to speak of. No awful co-workers whose presence you’re forced to endure.
That makes your body immensely vulnerable to stress when it does come along. We are closing right now on our first home. Dealing with incorrect forms, chasing down slacker lending agents, and trying to figure out what’s next around the corner with very little experience to guide me has made me a giant stress ball. I was pretty concerned about my reactions to minor setbacks. I used to broker huge deals where tons of things went wrong and fires needed to be put out. Now an issue 1/10th the size was generating three times the amount of stress. Was something wrong with me?
Not really. My tolerance was just completely shot by not having to deal with this. Going from a clean system to a straight shot of this stuff is drastic. Before, I would have been dealing with way higher levels of stress such that this wouldn’t even hit the radar as an issue.
I wouldn’t recommend running out and inviting stress into your life just to keep your defenses up. I think it’s just something you recognize and deal with. And reflecting on the high levels of stress I dealt with back in the day has made me doubly grateful for retired life. After all, this whole closing situation is temporary, and I’ll be back to my blissful stress-free life in no time.
You Will Struggle To Describe Your Life To Others
One of the first questions people ask you here in the US when you meet for the first time is “What do you do?”
Well, my husband and I have discussed this at length and we aren’t comfortable divulging to others that I’m retired. It implies certain things about our finances that we don’t want to deal with. For a while, I would say that I was on a multi-year sabbatical. Then people would ask me what my husband did for a living. Ouch. Like I couldn’t support myself.
During the home-buying process, I did feel comfortable telling several folks in the process — lenders, mostly — that I was retired. Again: “That’s great! And what does your husband do?”
That’s another way of saying, “I don’t believe you”. I’d heard from several other early retirees that they’ve had success answering the question by sharing one of their hobbies. So I started telling people I was a blogger/writer. “Oh cool. What’s the name of your blog?”
“Oh…I write it under a pen name.” You see, my blog has my net worth and advertises the fact that I’m retired, so I can’t really talk about that, either.
Basically people think I’m a housewife or a kept woman. There’s nothing wrong with being a housewife or a kept woman. But if you were an engineer, would you want to be mistaken for a musician? Or if you were an entrepreneur, would you want someone saying you’re a stay-at-home husband? These roles are just so fundamentally different from what you are interested in and what you are doing with your time. It’s galling.
I’ve found some great people to talk with in the FIRE community, where the early retirement and blogger aspects of my life can be completely out in the open. As for the rest: I deal with it. I have some friends who’ve known me for years that secretly think I’m a homemaker. It comes through in small jokes about how the hubs supports me and how lucky I am to have him bringing home the bacon. I unwilling to share the facts it would require to correct them. Life goes on.
Your Time Is Taken For Granted
This next one is connected to the item above. It’s incredible how often you will be called upon to donate your time. Would you mind watching Frodo this weekend? Any chance you could accept the delivery of my new couch? I’ve got a crazy thing at work this week.
I walked away from millions of dollars because I decided my time was worth more than the money. So no, I don’t want to twiddle my thumbs in your apartment waiting for your sofa to arrive. I don’t want to hand courier you the item you left at the restaurant near my house. I don’t want to pick a restaurant that is all the way towards you rather than at the halfway point. If anything, my time is more valuable than it was all those months ago. But again, it’s hard to convey this point without getting into details I am unwilling to share.
You’ll have to get good at the polite no when you retire early. Don’t say you can’t. Just say you are not available. Don’t explain. And if you’d like, you can say this is an important, short chapter in your life and you’re deliberately pruning down engagements. It’s crazy when you think about it how incredibly rude it is to make these kinds of demands of your friends. Money and time are transferable. I would never go up to my friend and say “Hey, I want to get a couch. Can I just have some of your money?” While doing favors for one another is a strong part of community, asking someone to do something because you value their time at less than yours is a different ball game, and none of us early retirees want to play.
It Can Get Lonely
For nine hours a day, your buddies will be unavailable. There will be tons to explore in your area, but there are only so many solo lunches and solo drives to the latest museum/exhibit/park you can take before you crave company. Fortunately, you will get used to this. And you will quickly take note of the other people who are out and about on Monday afternoons. Strike up a few acquaintance-ships and you won’t be lonely for long.
You’ll Still Worry About Money
You don’t go from making money one of your chief areas of focus to being totally carefree overnight. In fact, as you transition into early retirement, you may find yourself gaining a newfound appreciation for how quickly you can lose your nest egg.
I retired only months before Trump was elected. Now there’s a giant question mark over where the economy will go under his administration. My dollars have to stay deployed in order to generate income. And yet deploying them leaves them at risk of principal loss. Losing 20-30% of your nest egg in one year is not unheard of. The idea of making all that money back is frightening. Yes, most steep drops are followed by corrections which replace the value in only a couple of years, but your vulnerability as a retiree to market forces is astounding. I find myself watching the news hawkishly.
The only solution I have come up with to make this particular problem go away is to have so much saved for retirement that you can park it in a bank account and just withdraw the principal. Unfortunately, inflation will ravage its value. You would have to have millions more to accomplish this, and ain’t nobody got the time to work that many extra years. On the bright side, I’ve heard from retirees who are farther down the path than I am that you get used to this kind of uncertainty with time, just as you learn to absorb other kinds of uncertainty in other aspects of your life. It will still be there, but you learn to roll with the punches. I consider that to be a fair trade for all the incredible benefits early retirement brings me.
Retirement isn’t all roses and sunshine. But if you can navigate some of the standard challenges, you will be more than amply rewarded with its wonderful benefits.
How about you? Any retirees out there who want to spill about the darker side of early retirement? What has been unexpected, and how have you navigated it?