The American Way

If you’ve ever been to America and driven on the highways, it soon strikes you that there seems to be no lane discipline anywhere in evidence. There’s no fast lane, no slow lane. Everyone seems to do as they please, overtaking and undertaking and varying their speed accordingly. It feels like a rubbish and dangerous way to drive, and I used to tell myself that it was a reflection of the sloppy, carefree attitude to life that many American’s lazily adhere to.

I recently read of an alternate view that appealed to me though. Have you ever noticed on our motorways that the fast lane tends to be hogged by the Beamers, Mercs, Jags and Audi’s? The flash motors that tell you to know your place? Get out of the way and let the important people past. Working men, symbolised by trucks and white vans, are allowed in two lanes only, causing the vans to permanently sit on your arse in the middle lane at 80mph. Pensioners, as useless and annoying as children, and with the poorest level of status, toddle along in the slow lane and shouldn’t even be allowed on.

Our motorways reflect our obsession with hierarchy and status, devolving from our old class system where you play the game to the rules. Know your place and stay in it.  

On American roads, on the other hand, everyone is equal. Everyone has the chance of going as fast or slow as they choose. Everyone gets a bite at the apple, big or small, fast or slow. You’re in it together on the highway, and you have the same chance as everyone else of getting ahead. This reflects the ideals of the American Way.

It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? I sometimes ask myself why the FIRE blogs we tend to refer to and enjoy sprang up in America? I’m thinking of course of Early Retirement Extreme and Mr Money Moustache. Initially, they seem to be a rejection of the American Dream, don’t they? These guys have dropped out, albeit in a seemingly constructive way. They don’t want to strive for monetary success, they don’t measure themselves by bling and material gain, they reject the consumer society that America, more than any other country, has built.

True enough. But they’re very much still infused with the “anyone can do it” mentality. ERE and MMM often focus on how the little guy can make it to early retirement too. It’s not the sole preserve and right of the rich and richer still. In fact, they’re almost evangelical about this: you, yes you, lowly engineering cubicle guy working for The Man, you can get out of this rut in ten years if you apply yourself. Here’s how.

We (in the UK FIRE community) seem to like this refreshing, positive approach that stresses that you can do it too. Although we’re pretty interested in saving and investing, it often seems to be for its own sake – no doubt many of us have enough in the bank to go out and put the deposit on a new Porsche, but we’re not that type of people are we? We have a different goal in mind, which is more about having financial control over our lives. Buying a Porsche would just symbolise the complete reverse of that ethic.

In Britain though, I often feel that when it comes to things like savings, investments and pensions, taking control of our own lives is way down the agenda for most people. When it comes to pensions, I bet the majority of people are focused on one main element: what is the State going to provide? In a way, I feel we’re more conditioned to think this way for a variety of reasons, including the “knowing our place” one that means that places and concepts like The City, stockbroking and merchant banking are just not environments for “people like us”.

I’d love to turn all this on its head and see everyone in Britain help tip the old establishment model into the bin. I invested money in Zopa in the hope that it might upset the (financial) status quo in the long run more than any other reason. I suspect that many members of the FIRE community do likewise, but I’m afraid we’re just not “normal”, are we? Not in the financial sense anyway. How many of your friends take an interest in finance? One in ten? One in twenty? Are you frightened to ask? After all, it’s really not polite to discuss our financial circumstances in public, is it? We can leave that to those vulgar Americans, Chinese, Indians and the rest of the rabble.

Mind you, if that’s the case, how come London is classed with Wall Street as the financial centre of the Universe? When I think about it, I begin to suspect that we British are, in reality, obsessed with money more than any other nation, possibly because it’s tied in with our idea about class and social standing. But we can’t talk publicly about these subjects because to do so just wouldn’t be British, would it?

And you can say the same thing about Sex.

And Death.

Damn, I knew I didn’t have the title of my blog nailed down. It’s just struck me – “Sex, Class, Money, Death – the Four Unmentionables of the British Middle Class Apocalypse.” That’s what it should have been.

Gym and Tonics

“So what’s the biggest change since you’ve returned to work?”, I’m asked. That’s easy. It’s the physical one. The title of my blog was meant to reflect upon themes that should interest mostly middle aged men and women. Any read of the national daily newspapers would tend to back this up (although maybe I should have included “Celebrities” to be accurate). I didn’t rank them in importance, more by order of potential interest, and I felt my experience of early retirement might re-order them in my own mind.

But, now I’ve returned to work, the earliest indication of change is mostly related to the subject of Health. Being retired, I was aware that I was spending a lot more time in the gym compared to when I was working, usually at least an hour a day and at least five days a week.  I wasn’t committed to any particular programme or regime, but tried to focus on things that would improve my aerobic capacity – the treadmill or rowing machine – or physical strength – free weights – and flexibility – stretching or yoga routines (based on an excellent Ryan Giggs DVD, in case you’re interested). And I’d swim quite a bit as a good all rounder.

The gym was a major part of my daily routine, and I generally enjoyed going at about eight in the morning, walking or biking past the lines of cars transporting people to work which reminded me of how lucky I was not to be doing likewise. I actually snipped a quote from Mr Money Moustache that I’d read as an  inspiration and reminder that I was leading the good life:

As a retiree, I have a special place in my heart for Monday mornings, because that’s when I would have had to go back to work if it weren’t for the joy of early retirement.  Despite the option of complete leisure, I woke up at 5:30 this morning because the sky was starting to brighten and I was too excited about the new day to let any of it go to waste.

I’m writing to you right now, but later on I’ll be building stuff, riding bikes, meeting with people and teaching kids. Later on as bedtime approaches I might fiddle around in the music room, read a book or listen to a podcast. It’s my idea of the perfect life: self-directed activities in pursuit of knowledge, self-improvement and even getting a chance to help others if you’re lucky.

This was the great thing about it. Going to the gym really felt like a choice because I had the ultimate flexibility to change the routine – a late evening sauna and swim was every bit as enjoyable when I decided to do that, for example. Or, on a rainy afternoon, putting in some time on the treadmill while I listened to a podcast or watched something on iplayer felt like a constructive way to put in an hour or so.

It wasn’t just the gym though. With time on my hands, I’d walk and cycle way more than I ever had. Two or three times a week I’d meet up with my DOH for lunch or coffee and I’d either walk or bike the three miles into town to do so. Seriously, Monday to Friday in the working week, who can fit in a three mile walk? I certainly can’t any longer. My Fitbit already attests to this fact – last year, 10,000 steps a day was a breeze. Back to work, and already the 3,500 days are back on the dashboard.

WIth the bike sitting in the garage I’m now back in the car everyday for a half hour commute to and from work. I’m lucky, I have a lovely drive through splendid Yorkshire scenery to work, but that’s an hour a day in the motor that takes five hours out my week that it didn’t used to. That’s not the killer though, and it’s not the main thing that’s brought my body to moan and groan each morning as I get out of bed. No. The main culprit and contributor to my new sedentary lifestyle is the desk, the chair and the PC screen. I can hardly bare to acknowledge that I might now be sitting six hours a day at a computer! Thirty hours a week! My God, that’s an outrage. Is it any wonder that I’m physically struggling with it? In my retirement days, I never spent even two hours sitting on my backside, unless it was in the evening with a good book and a glass of red.

I’m now trying to compensate by making my gym visits almost compulsory and at least that makes me feel a bit more “worthy” when I’ve managed to complete a session! It is hard though. Do I really have to get out of bed at six in the morning to go for a swim before the office? Do I really have to swing the car into the Bannatyne’s carpark on an evening when I’d much rather be heading home to unwind after a hard day at the office? That’s the change in the question: “Do I have to go to the gym?” instead of “What time do I fancy going to the gym if I don’t go this morning”?

Still, there’s a lot to be said for “self discipline” and I find that structuring your interests around the working day can actually help you get things done. And, having done my run at the back of six this morning before heading into the office, I’m really looking forward to settling in with a good book and a glass of red tonight. I’m certain I will feel as if I deserve it.

Where Can We Live But Days?

There’s a poem by Philip Larkin that I used to reflect upon often during my early retirement days (Entitled, as luck would have it, “Days”!)

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

I used to muse over this in my mind when the days turned colder and I’d find myself on a Tuesday afternoon, standing at the radiator in my kitchen watching a sleety rain patter against the windows. I’d have already been to the gym that day, walking there and back wrapped up against the cold. The freezer would be bulging with dishes I’d cooked up to fill previous hours, and the Monday shop in Lidl had already been done. I’d not be in the mood to read books. I pretty much have never watched much telly, so I certainly wasn’t going to sit down in front of Loose Women. I’d be alone in the house and conscious that my wife would soon be coming in from work and looking for her “me time” – the last thing she’d be looking for would be my hangdog company. I’d slurp my tenth cup of tea in the day and try to resist the temptation to have another biscuit. What to do with the rest of the day? And what if the rest of the week was going to be similar?

I can already sense some readers swooning with the thought of having a day like this. Or more than one. Really? “Be careful what you wish for”, is what I say, and I’ve been there and got the T-shirt. My old dad used to tell me not to wish retirement on because “It will be there soon enough”. I used to think that what he meant was that “old age”, being 65, left you wondering where the time had flown to, but I was starting to wonder? Was he bored with it? His big hobbies were the garden and the golf, not exactly British winter pursuits. Were his retirement days stretching out? Was he finding them a bit repetitive? Was he missing his work? I was young and just starting out on the employment ladder and I looked on his comments in the same way as when he told me “School days were the happiest days of your life”. Yeah, right Pop. If retirement was all I thought it was cracked up to be, then he must mean something else. Perhaps it was going too quick for him, or maybe it was ushering the Grim Reaper in a bit too quickly. But surely he couldn’t be bored?

You can’t associate boredom with retirement, can you? It’s not allowed. “Only boring bastards would get bored with retirement”, as one of my mates said, when I told him I was having trouble filling my days. I agreed, and fretted about my inability to find something fulfilling to fulfil myself with. If it wasn’t Philip Larkin haranguing me in my mind, it was Bruce Springsteen:

Stay on the streets of this town
and they’ll be carving you up alright
They say you gotta stay hungry
hey baby I’m just about starving tonight
I’m dying for some action
I’m sick of sitting ’round here trying to write this book…..

I’m not really sure what The Boss was referring to when “Dancing in the Dark” but some retirement days it felt like this summed up how I was feeling. I wanted some “action” too, you know, but for me (given I was beginning to suspect I was really beginning to annoy my working wife) this would be a project, an objective that was set outside of myself. Something that involved other people, working with them, persuading them, cajoling them, or even doing what they were asking me to. Taking direction, following a leader. The kind of challenges my work used to supply on a daily basis.

Setting goals and objectives for yourself is all very well, as is having hobbies, pastimes and all the hours in the day to pursue them. Ermine waxed lyrically, as ever, over this subject on his blog this week, and posted examples of how you might fill your day in retirement. Yes, okay, but once you’ve considered all of them, and more, and found you’re just not in the mood or in the position to tackle any of them, what else are you going to do? Read another book? Go another walk? Build a radio set? Surf more FIRE websites telling you to follow your dreams? Well, what if your dreams merely taunt you about your inability to take steps toward them? For a time, I thought my dream job would be to be a writer. Seemingly it’s a lot of people’s fantasy job. There’s a cure for it: take a week off work; sit at your desk at a time of your choosing and write. Oh, and “Just write anything!” as the books and blogs advise. See how long it takes you to (1) become seriously bored (2) run out of things to write about (3) find yourself weeping at the sheer crap you’re producing (4) if you think it’s quite good, wonder how you can commercialise what you have written and then wonder if that’s not, like, a job? (5) Get up every day and repeat the process.

Listlessness affects everyone, and there’s something about having every day to fill – that’s every day – that seems to make you more prone to it. I seriously underestimated how little I could achieve between the hours of seven in the morning and eleven at night and often wondered where they’d gone and what I’d done with them? I knew I wasn’t alone. In his book “Fit, Fifty and Fired Up”, Nigel Marsh wrote:

I knew all too well the dangers of sitting at home with not enough to do. It’s easy to become soft and directionless without a focus – a “park bencher” as one of my friends calls it. You can even find yourself reading junk mail or writing To-Do lists comprising of things like “Clean teeth”. I remember an occasion during a previous hiatus from work when I’d only one thing to do in the day – buy pork chops for dinner. As I ran to the butcher in my pyjamas at 5pm before he closed, I was thinking “I haven’t got time for all these jobs! I mean I’ve got to clean my teeth and then there’s the pork chops!”

Well, Nigel wrote a few books about his experiences and hats off to him for that. But, make no mistake, writing a book must be one of the hardest things you can do – unless you find that it’s one of the easiest. I suspect there’s not much of a middle ground. If it’s the former, I suspect you might want to be paid for it and…wait… isn’t that a priest or a doctor, in a long coat, running over a field toward me?

The Returned

In order to maintain integrity on my blog, I feel I have to admit this….I’ve returned to work!

Hopefully this won’t come as too big a shock to people who have been following what I’ve been posting. If you’ve read a few of my ruminations on retiring you’ll no doubt be aware that I plunged into “early retirement” after I exited the workplace aged fifty one, with enough funds invested to see me through four years until the first of my pensions kicked in. You’ll also be aware that before long I was struggling a bit with the retirement lifestyle, and finding the change from a full on, full time working week to a zero hour one quite difficult to handle. I just couldn’t shake the notion that I was too “young” to put my feet up, that I should be working and that I should be out there earning money. I might not have “needed” the latter, but it never quite felt that way. I would argue that unless you have millions in the bank you’ll never be  a hundred percent comfortable with your financial future. Even then, you might still fret about some monetary catastrophe ruining your best laid plans.

It wasn’t all about the fretting over money though. I felt that the working life had brought more to me than just a wage. I’d reflect that surely I wasn’t alone in this? I mean, why does Paul McCartney keep writing songs and releasing them? He doesn’t need the money and he doesn’t need to expose his compositions to potentially critical and public disdain. He could live forever on his back catalogue, but he keeps producing.  I can only think that he feels that writing songs is his job and, as such, he wants paid for it, just like everyone else does.

Work is such a big part of your life and I imagine it can be  almost intolerable if you find yourself in a role or company that you literally can’t stand. I was concerned that I was heading that way in my previous job, although it was more the lifestyle that I had sickened of, working long hours in the office to head back to a hotel room instead of home. That wasn’t the balance I was looking for and the money increasingly failed to compensate for my time.

It becomes a slightly different proposition when you can effectively choose to work or not. Having to go to work can be a miserable proposition, but having the ability to choose to leave it, or return to it, gives it more appeal.

That’s why I’m never going to knock anyone who has the goal to retire early, because it’s having the ability to choose to do it that’s the important thing. I’ve written here before that I think people who are focused on FIRE might struggle with retirement unless they can construct fulfilling goals and objectives to achieve once their financial ones have been realised. “Retirement” is pretty much just a concept anyway.  I used to get frustrated reading Early Retirement Extreme and Mr Money Moustache because, in my view, both were “working”. Jacob was writing his book and curating his blog and Mr Moustache was taking on construction projects. Neither were doing these things for nothing, although they probably could have.

So what is “retirement”? We might just be arguing over words and conceptual definitions here, but I was very clear in my own mind that, for me, “retirement” would mean pure and simply that I would not work for money again. Voluntary work, therefore, could be part of a retirement plan, but not any type of endeavour that paid. No matter how much you enjoy leisurely building dolls houses as a hobby, if the plan is to sell them at craft fairs then, as far as I’m concerned, that’s “work”.

It’s not all about money though. Writing this blog wouldn’t be work, I felt, because I was choosing to do it. I wouldn’t advertise on it and I would write for it when I chose to. To be effective (productive) however, I felt I did need to commit to a regular publishing schedule and, quite quickly, this began to feel like “work” too, and I found myself beginning to wonder how and if I could generate some income from it. If I “have” to do it, can’t I gain something for it? If I’m producing the content, shouldn’t I be charging for it? Seemingly people who are into e-publishing think that the majority of bloggers are nuts – why create all that content and then give it away for free?

So I’ve returned to full time, paid employment. I’m still thinking about retirement, but my experience has put a different perspective on my plans. In fact, I’m thinking that maybe I should be planning to work in some way, shape or form until I’m either mentally or physically unable to do it! It’s likely that this will be part time (and it’s likely that I’ll want it to be part time too) so I need to make plans. That’s what I failed to do last time ‘round. I’d only planned the financial part of early retirement, not the rest of what to do with my time. Hopefully I won’t be repeating that mistake going forward!

I’m not sure what I will do with this blog. I don’t feel that I can write much more about “early retirement” when I’m back working and there’s only so much I feel I can add to what I’ve already written about the “challenges” of it. But I’ve enjoyed writing it, receiving the feedback in the Comments, and am still interested in some of the “work life balance” questions we all face. More importantly, I’ve just renewed my annual WordPress subscription, so I want to get some value from it! So I intend to keep posting, and see where it takes me.