How Much is Enough?

My holiday wandering took me down to a big new Marina where the super yachts, Ferraris and heliports decorated the harbour. Apart from tourists like me, gawping at the wealth we’d never have even a snowball’s chance in Hell of attaining, the place was deserted. Maybe the billionaires are too embarrassed to be seen here by the poor people, mouths agape and slavering at the sheer vulgarity and colossal tastelessness on display?

Superyacht

Look, don’t touch.

Nobody else seemed to be bothered by the absence of those who control this wealth. In fact, other people were strolling the harbour side looking very happy, smiling at the deckhands and pointing at the display of ostentation in what seemed to be admiration. Clearly they derived some sort of pleasure from looking at objects that they would never, could never have the slightest hope of attaining and a lifestyle that will never be theirs. Whereas I was wondering more why we, the people, weren’t forcefully boarding these obscene gin palaces? After all, we paid for them. This harbour, built no doubt by the Spanish government and EU cash, is being hogged by these monstrous boats that none of we citizens can board. I wondered if it galls the billionaires that they can’t stop the hordes wandering along the harbour? I was also wondering why they couldn’t build their own damn harbours? The state can only go so far in its cosseting of the billionaire class of course, and needs their connivance to dangle the carrot to the people that one day, in our democracy, all this could be yours too. Just ask Tony Blair. Come look, admire and aspire. But don’t dare touch.

So what has any of this to do with Early Retirement, I ask myself? Well, if I’m retired I can absolutely kiss goodbye to the aspirational lifestyle of monetary and material possessions. It was one that I used to be somewhat comfortable with and ensconced within. I worked, I earned and I bought the kind of stuff that could be posed with as a measure of my wealth. Okay, relative to the super-yacht set my splurges were laughable. But I have to say the sentiment was the same: Look at how much I’ve got!

Over the years, however, my goals and priorities changed more toward the Dave Ramsey mantra, “…where the status symbol of choice is the paid off home mortgage.” I stepped out of the rat race, I like to think.  Maybe now I rant against ostentatious displays of wealth in the same way a recovering alcoholic might rant against the evils of drink. I recognise my vulnerability to accumulating wealth and must protest against it.

Or is it simpler than that? Is it still basically envy? I remember an old colleague of mine stating his opinion on being offered BUPA through our company scheme (which I was thinking of declining.) “Jim, I’d only protest against it if I couldn’t get it”, he said. As I looked disdainfully at the Ferraris, was it just jealousy that was bothering me so much?

You know, I have no idea. But retirement brings home certain financial realities, that’s for sure. Living with less ambition for material goals is, I think, a “good thing”, but I still can’t completely shake the feeling that having money as a measuring stick is something I’ve completely left behind.

25 thoughts on “How Much is Enough?

  1. I live in a small town in Canada where many of my neighbors are my age (younger seniors – early Boomers.) A lot of them have bought toys in their dotage – Mazda sports cars, motorcycles, caravans or motorhomes. I don’t think many of them have yachts or Ferraris.
    That said, I don’t envy them. I think if you know your tastes and limitations as a younger person, that’ll carry on into later life. And if you don’t…
    I know of a family who has an 18 year old daughter who graduated from secondary school and doesn’t have a clue what to do about further education or a career. So they bought her a car. Truly sad.

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    • Hi Ray, thanks for dropping by. I think we Boomers are going to have a lot to answer for/to about how we’ve squandered much of what we’ve managed to create. But that’s maybe for another rant!

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  2. Reblogged this on Live Da Life and commented:
    How funny. Just posted on this but from a different perspective. Maybe this is just a common thought into early retirement. You’re young enough to still pursue stuff but not sure if it’s worth the trading your time for it. What do you think?

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    • Hi Ron, for sure, this is a biggie for me, especially in these early days of early retirement. I have the time, what best to do with it? In lieu of finding “my calling”, working for money is the framework I have been used to. And was it so bad?

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      • I know where you’re coming from Jim. It’s why I’m still “working” in a sense, but on my own timeframe. Think we’re too young to just sit around. I like having more time to think. Just not too much. 😉 Love your work.

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  3. Don’t you feel sad for the guy with the small yacht who parks it next to the mega yacht? He’s probably more envious than you are of him! 😉

    What’s the saying: to be happy is to want what you have?

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    • My friend, a fund manager, said he was so sick of going out with guys worth (say) four hundred million and all they would obsess about was the absolute idiot they knew who was worth four hundred and fifty million. Either that, or they were so scared of losing their four hundred million they were making themselves ill.

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  4. what I find helpful is remembering an anecdote from John Bogle of Vanguard fame. he wrote “at a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, has made more money in a single day than Heller earned from from his wildly popular novel Catch 22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “yes, but I have something he will never have…enough.”

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  5. Really interesting discussion Jim, appreciate you writing this.

    However, what I feel you might be trying to say (I could be wildly off here), is that actually, you wouldn’t mind striving for something big, something impressive. You pursued goals and saved whilst working, but now you’re retired, you don’t have that ongoing ‘thing’ to pursue. There aren’t the deadlines and pressures kicking you up the arse every day like there were at work. I think you miss some aspects of work…

    The other thing I kind of sense from this post (and again, correct me if I’m wrong) is that you have always struggled with your attitude towards money. ‘How much is enough?’ Well, I can’t put a figure on that. As mentioned in the comments, ‘enough’ is what makes you happy. Does Warren Buffet have ‘enough’? He’s still working away in his 80s as he always has, because for him, it is the work that he enjoys – we all know he’s a man of simple tastes, he doesn’t even care for fast cars and high living, let alone abandoned yachts in Spain, and yet he keeps making those billions. I expect tha vast majority of it will go to tons of charities when he passes.

    What I’m trying to say is that it’s not wrong to be a millionaire, billionaire, or even trillionaire. It’s not wrong to be living on minimum wage or scraping by with 2 kids and a mortgage on an average wage either. I think what IS wrong is that we live in fear of being wealthy, like we somehow don’t ‘deserve’ to enjoy ourselves. Conversely, we live in fear of poverty. Our attitude towards money really affects our whole life. The very rich are often just as fearful as the very poor, and thus they act accordingly… sadly with stinginess. The real problem is that we think real poverty = unhappiness, therefore huge wealth = happiness. This is also wrong.

    I think everyone is supposed to have greatness and abundance in their life in one way or another. For me, I understand that I cannot help others if I have lack in my life. This lack is money, time, desire, and energy (maybe I should have just said sex, health, money, and death?!). Lack is the bit that we need to solve, and internal lack i.e. drive, energy, desire to do something greater is what we need to focus on as long as our basic needs are met, which for most people is the case. Money is just a tool that enables you to do stuff, so why not plot out what you would just LOVE to do and then go and do it? You can always re-enter the workforce and earn more, and thus do more. Whatever your passions are, you probably need money to pursue them. GO FOR IT!

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    • Thanks for your thoughtful response M! Our relationship with money is really complex, as it is with other things. Some of the questions you raise here are partly why I started the blog. I thought if I wrote publicly about FIRE it would force me to be more precise about what I want from it. But, as Del Amitri once sang, “Finding what you want is like trying to divide ice from snow”!

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  6. I’m quite happy admiring the flash stuff that people have, be that yachts, cars, or houses/mansions. I may feel a little envy but that’s it, no other strong feelings. Doesn’t mean that I want that kind of stuff, although it was what I aspired to own when I was younger (not the yacht!), it’s been a long time since I wanted any kind of ‘bling’ to brighten up my life because quite frankly, I don’t feel that my life needs that kind of brightening up – it’s good enough as it is.

    I’d be tempted to say that I’m very unlikely to change in my old age, although I may be in danger of just ‘making do’ when others may feel that I could do much better.

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  7. One of my favourite past times while travelling Australia was to walk around their magnificent harbours and marvel at the super-yachts. Some of them were 5 stories high and probably cost well into the tens of millions, a sight to behold! As much as I’d have loved to taken a look round the inside of them, I can’t recall ever once being envious of their owners. Infact I remember one of my most frequent thoughts was along the lines of “I wonder how much THAT costs to run!”.

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      • Jim, have to agree with you on that point. Did you see the Hans Rosling thing on BBC 2 the other week? Try to check it out on iPlayer if not, very eye opening (but also very positive). I think it was called How to end extreme poverty in 15 years or something like that. There is a lot of pointless spending going on in the world (I take part in a lot of that myself!) but surely we can all realise that at some point it does just get ridiculous and people should be focusing on helping those in extreme poverty before buying their next yacht. I have no idea how to force them to do that aside from increasing taxes but then there is less incentive to earn more and so on, it’s a circular argument. I guess all we can hope is that a higher percentage of the future rich are more like Buffett, Gates and from what I hear, Zuckerberg, that governments get better at dishing out international aid to the countries that really need it, and that governments in those countries become less corrupt. I think things are slowly moving in that direction (The Rosling TV show seemed to suggest so anyway!)

        One thing I don’t understand about Buffett is just leaving all of his cash to charities when he dies. Admittedly have not read up about it at all but that is what I’ve heard/assumed from other sources (like M mentioned above).

        I get that he loves business and gives money to charities already but wouldn’t you want to see a larger portion of the pie go to the charities you support while you were alive so you can see the good it is doing?
        Like M mentioned it’s not like he has a high spending life he has to maintain.

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      • I’ll look out for that Hans Rosling doc, but I’ve read that one of the major reasons that the super rich are thinking of giving back is because they’re worried about just how absolutely, disgustingly, stinking rich they’ve become. It’s a disgrace, and they know it. What gets me is that the majority of people just don’t see it. Instead, we gaze at the super yachts and private jets and hope that one day we’ll win the lottery and join them. Because the odds of winning the lottery (14 million to one) are still better than the chances of you joining this elite any other way!

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  8. Thanks for the post. It’s nice to have this thoughtful and honest reflection about what drives us, even if we are not entirely comfortable with findings from that exploration.

    In May and June 2013, we walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain during a little sabbatical from work. What we talked about during 33 days of walking 15 miles (or 24 km) per day revolved mostly around some of the same topics being discussed here. What is enough, and how much are we willing to work (and defer–or perhaps even regret?–retirement) so that we can get that enough? For us, as with Weenie above, it was never about yachts!

    Something interesting about our experience was that once we got used to the scarcity of choices–in lodgings, menus, routes to take, etc.–we became quite happy with just taking each day as it came. Wake up early, have a cafe con leche and toast, walk, stop and have a tortilla and another cafe, walk, stop to have some bread and cheese, walk, and then stop to consume eagerly whatever “pilgrim’s dinner” was on offer. (You get pretty hungry walking all day with a pack on your back.)

    We seemed happier with such little choice in what to do or eat or where to sleep than we are back home in our rather plusher surroundings. Perhaps being surrounded by all this wealth in excess makes us wonder about choices we’ve made and consider what we’re missing out on. For our part, we’re glad to be pursuing FIRE, but it’s hard when you feel that you are swimming against the current of what the rest of our societies seem to be grasping at.

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    • Thanks for the comment. It’s true, the best things in life are free, but they’re not necessarily fulfilling! I’d be first to say you really don’t need much stuff to enjoy retirement, but that doesn’t mean you stop aspiring for certain things. If all we wanted was free time, then we’d stop working, sign on the dole and enjoy. But that’s not quite it, is it? 😊

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    • I agree with the sentiments about walking, although my area of choice is the (often colder and wetter) English Lake District 🙂 The “scarcity of choices” bit kind of reminded me of Bill Bryson’s, perhaps jokey but nontheless true I suspect, observation that all this choice in life breeds a certain kind of dissatisfaction. He was variously talking about (to me as a relatively uncomplicated kind of bloke) the vastness of choice at the airport coffee stand (“I just want a NORMAL cup of coffee !”) and the huge variety of flavours at the ice cream parlour. It rather amused me that, with probably about a hundred different flavours on offer, sales data definitively showed that vanilla was the top choice because it was the one people felt wouldn’t disappoint them.

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      • I remember reading aboit Bill Bryson’s meltdown in an American coffee shop. Recently I tried to read quite a well known book on this subject, “The Paradox of Choice“, which was heavy going. Ironically enough, due to over 100 unread books on my Kindle, I gave it up and went on to read something else.

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  9. Excellent post – thank you.

    As I get older and more comfortably off, I see more clearly how important the relative is for so many people. We all have richer/more successful/etc friends/neighbours/fellow parents/etc. I am pretty competitive and have a lot of competitive friends; several people I know are millionaires and pretty clearly have ‘enough’ on an objective measure, but they all know people who are far ahead of them, and who motivate them to continue to strive accordingly.

    I am in semi-retirement myself, but one of the factors that keeps me striving is the Fear Of Missing Out Relatively – i.e. being unable to afford to join my mates on the holidays they can afford, unable to move to areas I used to be able to afford, and so forth. Nasty consumerist nonsense, but powerful psychology. Especially among high-achieving uber-competitive types. I think I’m closer to Joseph Heller than most of these mates, but I don’t think I’m quite there yet…. hence posts like this are really useful and interesting.

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    • I know what you mean. It’s easy to dismiss material things as inconsequential nonsense, but they’re tied deeply into our lives. Maybe not for everyone, but for us lucky ones in the affluent First World it’s the way we’ve developed. It’s hard to dismiss it, and I don’t think we should, but maybe there are better ways to view what we’re striving for and how to share the benefits.

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  10. Written on a Friday, during the day, when we are at work….and you’re not. I’d say you have enough.

    For me enough is when you can make choices and not have to worry about the consequences. Can I fly to the alps for the weekend? Can I go “taps aff” to the beach on the first day of sunshine and not be chained to an office?

    Whatever the answer, I think the question is the subjective part we need to question in ourselves. It’s like adolescence all over again where we have to learning grow into ourselves.

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