I “early retired” aged 50, and still put the term in inverted commas because (a) I never really convinced myself I had retired and (b) I went back to work a year after the event, so maybe I never really did retire in the true sense of the word. And (c) does being aged 50 really qualify as “early retired” when for many years, that was quite a common exit point from the world of work? In fact, I was really surprised to learn that the government only changed the rules to make minimum pensionable age 55 from 50 in 2010!
I reflected on this subject as I was listening to the Mad Fientist’s most recent podcast where he was interviewing Mrs ONL from the Our Next Life blog. Toward the end of the hour, Mrs ONL made this cogent observation:
….my advice is, every day of freedom that you can steal back from 65 is a win. And so even if you are retiring at 64 ½ or 62, that’s still huge. And that’s still a lot more life that you get to live on your own terms than most people will ever get to say. Or just even being able to retire on your own terms is huge.”
She also commented on something I’ve noticed about the competitive nature of Retiring Early, where you now have bloggers claiming to have attained FIRE in their twenties. Soon enough you’ll be hearing some blowhard down the pub spouting “Yes, as a foetus I implemented the 4% rule and effectively retired”. To be fair, in Britain I think that’s a long way off. Occasionally during my year out I did tentatively mention to peers that I was “retired” and half expected to get the response, “Oh, I could have done that, but I just wasn’t ready for it in my fifties”. I expected this to happen much more frequently than it did. Coming to think about it, I can only recall the one occasion where I got this response and that was from a bloke whom, if he hadn’t reacted in that way, I’d have been devastated. He’s one of these guys who, when you tell him your car had a flat tyre on the motorway, will comment, “Oh yes, did I tell you about the time I had three tyres simultaneously blow out on me on the M25, when I was doing 98 mph? In the rain? And when I pulled over, Kylie Minogue stopped to give me a hand to change the tyres?” And he’d be quite serious.
The most common response was some sort of positive rejoinder accompanied by a kind of puzzled look, as if people were wondering if you were winding them up. (Not surprising when half the time I was wondering if I was winding myself up!) Nobody really asked for any further detail, preventing me from spreading the word about passive investing, Index Trackers and the list of inspirational websites that had helped me decide that Early Retirement was the lifestyle choice I wanted to experience.
I now find myself asking what I learned from that year and what I’ll do differently as I approach – or am forced to approach – my next retirement date. The first thing I think I’ve learned is to absolutely have a structure to the days, preferably written down in a spreadsheet, of what I want to do and when I want to do it. Definitely the most difficult retirement days were when I drifted through them, nothing to do and all day to do it, when walking to the local Co-op to buy a loaf and a pint of milk seemed to be a worthwhile objective. This was particularly true in the afternoons between about one o’clock and six in the evening, when I found it hard to motivate myself to do anything. I’d generally spend a lot of that time aimlessly surfing the internet in the vain hope that I’d find a hobby or pastime to occupy myself with that might also earn me a wee bit of cash on the side – then it’d feel more “worthwhile”. But if earning money was partly what I wanted to do, then why didn’t I just get back into the kind of career I once had and (generally) really enjoyed? In the end, that’s what I did.
It’s clear to me now how much routine and structure were important to my days and it now dawns upon me how, for almost thirty years, work provided it. Work also helped define the days that you weren’t at it – weekends were special, holidays an oasis in the desert. Before that, it was school, with your scheduled timetable, the play time bell and the ever longed for summer holidays. It’s not really a surprise, or it shouldn’t be, that when that structure vanishes and every day is like Sunday, then it’s quite a shock to the system. It’s therefore not a failure to seek a structure to replace what you’ve known for literally most of your life to that point. In fact, it’s almost a requirement that you replace the old solid routine and structure with one that’s equally robust.
So what I learned was that it doesn’t really matter how late, or early, to the game you are if you’re really not prepared for it. In fact, the more months and years you have to start laying the foundations for outside interests, hobbies and pastimes that are an alternative to work, the better it will be. Don’t make the mistake of waiting until you have time in retirement to work on all those things because, in my experience, it just ain’t as simple as that.