What Is “Work”? // Creating Our Own Definitions and More for the Retirement Police

I just can’t help it, you guys. I feel compelled to keep poking the bear that is the retirement police, those folks who feel the need to tell us if we are or aren’t “retired,” according to whatever their definition happens to be (and it usually happens to be “never lifting a finger for anything that does, or even possibly could, earn a few cents”).

Recently I got this gem of a comment on this piece from a self-appointed retirement cop:

Retirement Police! This troll thinks he gets to decide whether we're retiring or not! Ha!

I laughed out loud at the notion that Fred and the royal “we” get to decide if Mr. ONL and I are “indeed” retiring. As though that’s his determination to make, not ours. (Plus, would sharing our numbers with Fred actually change anything for him? I’m sure he’d find some reason why those aren’t legit either, ’cause coppers gonna cop.)

A few weeks ago I took on the retirement police and their definition of retirement. And since then, we’ve done a lot more thinking about how we define retirement, and why we’re so attached to the term “early retirement” instead of just saying “financial independence” like plenty of bloggers do, even though we think it’s largely a semantic difference. (We also feel attached to “early retirement” because we became financially independent more than a year ago, but aren’t quite at the place we’d feel most comfortable actually retiring. But soon!)

With that added thinking, I’ve come up with as simple a definition as I can get it down to, and I think this aligns to our thinking pretty well:

Our Definition of Retirement: Being Ruled by Passions and Fun, Not the Need for Money

Of course, this is all predicated on our plan to leave our careers as soon as we believe we have a comfortable cushion built up with plenty of contingencies, and the definition might not apply equally well to those who pursue financial independence but have no desire to leave their careers. But that’s exactly the point:

Each of us is free to define retirement for ourselves. No one else gets to define it for us.

Anyone who says otherwise is selling something (or trolling you). And to those folks, we should all loudly proclaim:

No one gets to tell us if we're retired or not.

That’s for us to decide for our lives, and you to decide for yours. Retirement police have no place in the discussion.


What Rules Us

My super simple definition of retirement, arrived at through lots of evolving thinking over time, doesn’t mention work at all. To us, it’s all about what we’re ruled by. And right now we need that work income, and are ruled by that need. Not nearly as badly as we were when we lived paycheck-to-paycheck, but fundamentally our lives are built around activities that put anything-but-passive income into our account twice each month. This is how most people live.

But by the end of the year, we’ll be able to profoundly shift how we structure our lives. Money will more or less take care of itself, and it won’t be something we need to actively pursue. This will leave us free to be ruled by our passions, and by things that sound fun. That will mean more fully actualizing our purpose — service, creativity and adventure — and following our noses to the next project that we’re stoked to undertake.

Right now we work, but that isn’t ultimately what defines this stage in our lives, because it is not unique to this stage. We’re currently defined by the need to do a certain kind of work, the kind of work that is guaranteed to bring us a paycheck that covers all the costs of sustaining our lives. After we retire, we’ll still work, and it won’t define that stage in our lives either. Instead, we’ll be defined by the ability to do only the work that excites us, regardless of whether it brings in money or not.

Bottom line: Work or lack thereof isn’t the factor that distinguishes pre-retirement from retirement. The distinguishing factor is what rules us: the need to earn income or the ability to follow our passions.

But it’s still worth asking…

What Is Work Anyway? Another Thought Experiment

Writing this blog is a continually interesting thought exercise for me, because the act of doing it provokes questions that tie right into our post-retirement lives. Questions like: If something doesn’t make money, is it still work? If I spend a lot of time on something that leads to other things that could make money, am I still retired? And so on. (Answer to the second question: Yes, if I want to call myself retired, because I get to define it how I want.)

Some of this is entirely the kind of navel-gazing thinking that we can do here on early retirement blogs because we all think too much about this stuff. But some of the inherent question here — what is work? — is directly relevant to our post-retirement lives and how we see ourselves.

Let’s say I love painting, to tie into the first example from my last retirement police post, and I spend hours and hours each week painting a new canvas. (Let’s assume this time, though, that I don’t sell these paintings. This is pure hobby.) I do this entirely because I’m passionate about it and I find it fun, but the act of creating each painting is still work. Each one takes hours, it takes patience, it takes persistence. I might have to redo sections that weren’t to my liking the first time, or keep touching them up until they look right to me. I start each painting because I love the craft of it, but at some point in every one, I end up feeling compelled to keep refining it even when other things are calling — meal time, bedtime, time I could be spending on other activities. When each canvas is done, the time I’ve spent on it feels worthwhile, and I’m proud of having finished.

It’s easy to dismiss this as not work. It’s clearly a hobby, not something I do with any hope of ever making income from it, and I undertake each project because I love it. Maybe instead of calling it “work,” I call it “play.” Or “fun painting,” or any other term that makes clear that it’s not “real.”

That might be fine, depending on what else I have going on in my life, but it also might not. We all as humans want to feel useful. We perhaps feel even more pressure to be useful in the U.S., where our capitalist society is based on the Calvinist work ethic, essentially the idea that our worth is signaled by our worldly activity (read: work).

Calling something we spend tremendous time on — even if it it’s something we do for passion or fun above all else — a belittling name like “play” or “hobby painting” negates its value in terms of usefulness or worldly activity, which we all crave. But calling the same project “work,” even without changing the task itself, changes how we see ourselves in relation to that project, and could boost our perceived usefulness.

In the case of the blog, it feels like an easier call: It’s clearly work, even though I don’t attempt to draw an income from it. A few indicators of that are:

  • My dedication to posting twice a week, regardless of how busy work is, whether I’m out of the country, etc.
  • The fact that I will give up sleep to hit my (self-imposed) deadlines.
  • My ongoing efforts to improve my blogging and to think of more interesting topics.
  • The fact that I have a sizable email backlog, just as one might at work. (I swear I haven’t ignored notes — I’m just slooooooow.)

All of that said, I could also call this little hobby of mine play. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun, so that label fits too. But in this case, calling it play feels more obviously trivializing than slapping a “fun” or “hobby” label on painting does.

Why is that? What makes one thing work and another thing not?

If we decided that this blog is not work because I don’t try to make money at it, the thought experiment question to follow up with would be: What if I slapped a few ads on it? Then would it be work, if it was making some money? Or what if I didn’t make money at it, but I tried to? So same net result as now (no income), but wildly different intentions and effort. If I sold a few paintings instead of just doing them all for myself, then is it work? (Responses on the last post would tend to agree that it is.) How about if I painted them intending to sell some, but then was unsuccessful and made no money? Is that work or not?

These are intended to be gray area examples because most cases of work are easy to spot, but not all are.

There Is Always Work

I’ve heard a few dozen times in the last few weeks some variation of “no one really retires.” And you can probably guess that I disagree with that statement, only because we each get to decide if what we’re doing constitutes retirement or not, regardless of what anyone else might deem it.

What I do agree with is few people truly stop working. There are always chores to be done, and projects around the home. Those things count as work, too. (I appreciated a recent commenter who shared that calling only income-generating activity “work” belittles stay-at-home parents, and I think that’s an important reminder. Tasks can be valuable and still be “work” without earning income.)

And, for most of us aiming for early retirement, the whole point of achieving that freedom is to be able to spend our time on the projects that excite us. I don’t know anyone pursuing early retirement or financial independence who plans to sit in a rocking chair for 50 years.

When we think about those projects that excite us, I’d like to posit that not only can we think of those projects as work, but we should think of them that way. Both to remind ourselves that we’re contributing that “worldly activity” that makes us useful, and to reinforce that work vs. no work isn’t the right way to think of life before and after retirement.

But ultimately, just as with retirement, it’s up to us to decide what we want to call something:

We can each define

What are your definitions?

So tell us — What is your definition of work? What is your definition of retirement? How do you see the distinction between life before and after retirement? Anyone agree with our belief that retirement is determined by what rules us, not whether or not we’re doing work? As always, we love hearing from folks with the full range of perspectives (including those who don’t agree with us!), so let’s dive into it all in the comments.

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97 replies »

  1. This is a very thought provoking post (as always). I’ve never really thought too hard about my definition of work. Maybe it has changed since I discovered FIRE, but I see work as something that you have to do because you NEED the money.

    Anything else, even if I happen to get money from it, doesn’t feel like work to me. But your point about jobs around the house still being work is a good one, so maybe I need to relook at my own definition (emphasis on my own… no one else’s… I agree with you there).

    I have never had any of the Retirement Police visit my blog or send me a tweet. I might feel like I have actually “made it” in the FIRE journey the first time they pay a visit ;)

    • Thanks! It’s interesting the point that work is very much a “feel” question. I’ve always found the quote “if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life” to be awfully trite, because even the best job still has some pieces we don’t love doing. And as for the retirement police, we’ve fortunately gotten few of them here, but I have no doubt they’ll find you guys at some point!

  2. As you know, I’d actually prefer you get paid for your blog by throwing up some affiliate links, but I digress. I’m not the Internet blog police.

    Jacob, from ER extreme, had a funny quote about ER, something like some folks think ER means “I must move to FL and begin taking my meds at regular intervals.”

    ER to me means us both quitting our jobs. My wife quit hers 5 years ago to stay/work fr home and now I will get fired soon to join her, with my sweet severance package including 3 months pay plus annual bonus. Sweet.

    To me even if someone is FI and working FT, they still aren’t ER. ER to me is freedom and being done with corporate work forever. I just don’t like conference calls at all, buzz words, fake teamwork, fake smiles, etc.

    It’s likely we will make some money in ER. It will be on our terms and we won’t be dependent on it. Nice topic.

    • It is for selfish reasons that I don’t want to make money from the blog, because I know that putting money pressure on it will steal the joy for me. That’s just me, though. ;-) And regardless, I appreciate you saying that.

      Thanks for sharing your definition of ER — I am totally with you in planning to be done with corporate work forever!

  3. I think your definition of pre and post retirement is spot on! Even if you choose to work in retirement, you likely wouldn’t be doing it for the money and would be doing it for the love of the project – which is awesome! I agree with another commenter though- you guys deserve to earn some money for all your hard work on the blog!

    • Aww, thanks. I feel wonderfully privileged to not need to make money from the blog, and for me, I think if I made it an income-producing endeavor it would lose most of its joy. So I keep it fun by making it more of a service project (and creative outlet) and not a “job.” ;-)

  4. You make a lot of valid points. I’m in the process of changing careers because I have so much student loan debt I don’t believe I’ll be able to “retire,” so I picked something I will enjoy (I hope!) doing for the rest of my days so that it doesn’t feel like “work.” I could have stayed in my former career with less debt and made more money and “retired,” or quit that particular career early, but it still would’ve been 25 more years, and I don’t see a reason for living life that way. Good post!

    • Total high five for making that switch! Congrats! It’s soooo important not to hate your life en route to FI or ER or whatever is next, so I applaud you for finding something more enjoyable that you can see yourself doing forever. :-D

  5. I think work in a “job” sense is just that, a job you do for money whether or not you love it, hate it, are FI or not. Work is work. Retired is “not working” in the sense of what I said above. Like you I don’t plan on not working on something and even being a stay at home parent is going to be a truck load of work, probably harder than my current job, but I’m sure I’ll find something to do outside of that.

    I think the distinction comes in like with what you said, what are your current life drivers. Pre-retirement they’re all “work” driven. Currently, I can’t do anything that doesn’t take into account my job’s schedule. Once I quit said job, I have the freedom to do whatever I want. For me, that’s the distinction. Even if I end up doing something else that makes money after I leave my career, as long as it’s not driving my schedule for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t consider myself un-retired, lol.

    It’s that nebulous grey area that comes up but that’s how I see it. Say I fell into a side gig that was flexible and made money, sure no prob I’m still “retired”. Then it starts taking over and turns into more of a real job and my shcedule starts forming around that side gig and whatever, I wouldn’t see myself as retired. The blog for instance, if I monetize it and put the time into it to grow numbers and revenue, then I wouldn’t consider myself “retired”, I’m just a blogger with a lot freer schedule than my last job.

    Yep, I guess I’m more on the “retirement police” side of the fence than the “you’re free to call it what you will” side of the fence. I agree with both, but my brain automatically says, “nope, not retired” at a lot of situations, lol.

    • There is SO much gray area here. To the flexibility point, if I hold myself to a blog posting schedule (whether or not I make money), am I no longer retired? If I volunteer on a schedule, does that make me not retired, even though it’s unpaid? I clearly build some things around the blog schedule, and don’t expect that to change, and it’s super intriguing how folks might view that. (I will still consider myself retired, of course.) ;-)

  6. This is crazy as I just posted on this exact topic yesterday (sorry for the shameless self promotion there). Early retirement for me is freedom. This topic is important for me, since if I follow the typical Early Retirement path I will retire in my early 60’s. This is not very early since I am starting late, and with a larger family. So, I have to ‘work’ for the next 15 years ….. or do I have to provide an income? Again a semantics difference, but I want to love what I do, so that it does not feel like ‘work’. Thanks for the great article!

    Also, to support one of your points: my wife stays home and takes care of 5 kids. She is passionate about raising out kids, but I think after picking up the living room for the 17th time during the day, she would argue that it qualifies as ‘work’

    – The Tepid Tamale

    • Great minds think alike. ;-) It’s great your focusing on loving what you do, and not just slogging through to collect a paycheck. And total respect to your wife for caring for five kids! That’s as much work as any job I can think of, if not more!

  7. I like your attempt to distill “retirement” down. My thought exercise is apply a definition of retirement to Bill Belichick coach of the Patriots (sorry for football again).

    Every year reporters question him about when he might retire from coaching. He “works” 14 hour days and makes millions a year. Presumably he reached FI decades ago. His response to the retirement question is usually some form of, “It beats working.”

    So is Belichick in “retirement” because he is doing what he’s passionate about (which earns a great income) and claims it isn’t work? If so, when did he “retire” as it sure wasn’t when he was making $25 a week for the Colts in 1975?

    • I’m sure that definition will keep evolving — it’s certainly a far cry from our starting definition!. ;-)

      And geez, I think Bill Belichick is a total unicorn, and he tends to be the exception that proves whatever rule is being discussed. ;-) All the same, if he wants to call himself retired, great, though I suspect virtually none of us see him that way.

  8. I haven’t really spent any time conciously thinking about this, but it’s interesting to see how I (and others) are framing our definitions of FI vs ER. Being someone who loves her job and is more focused (at this point, anyway) with FI over ER, I think my personal definition is similar to Mr. SSC’s – if I had way more money than I think I’ll need to be FI, I might quit my current job, but only if I could turn right around and volunteer to do most of my job on a more relaxed and flexible schedule. The “most” means I’d want to skip the meetings, hand over managing staff, and leave the budget details to someone else, and do the nitty-gritty technical stuff that makes the day fly by. ;-) The other part of the dream would be to work only as much per day as I want – so there’s both a time component and an enjoyment of what one is doing with that time to what I think retirement means.

    • It definitely is interesting! To me, what you’re describing as your ideal could absolutely fit my definition of “early retirement” (working on your terms for the enjoyment, not because you’re ruled by the need for income), but ER doesn’t feel like the right term to you — and that’s totally great! ;-)

  9. I think I’m one of those that thinks of retirement as most people. Punch the clock until 65 and then relax. What I think many of us plan to do is “cease traditional employment” at a young-ish age, but that just doesn’t roll off the tongue, so I just say “retire.” At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what you call it or what you’re doing. If you want to retire from traditional employment, call yourself retired, and then volunteer at the animal shelter for 40 hours a week or work 40 hours a week on a project that might yield some income – go for it. It doesn’t bother me :)

    • Amen, brother. It doesn’t matter at all what we call it… except that we should at least know what we’re all talking about. Thanks for not adding fuel to the retirement police fire! ;-)

  10. The perpetual skepticism of the Internet Retirement Police can be annoying, but it serves a purpose: keeping us honest.

    I read “Your Money Or Your Life” nearly 25 years ago. Since then I’ve seen a few writers who were just plain lying about their financial independence (and eventually debunked). Several more were sadly unable to do their math. And yes, at least one of those people has published a book and was buying FinCon tickets.

    It’s not just about showing how we’ll succeed. It’s also about showing how we’ll insure our plans against failure. An 80% success rate is realistic (not just optimistic) but readers want to be sure they’ll avoid the 20% failures.

    When a new blogger pops up with a great plan, are they legit? Can we all follow their lead for our own FI? Can we trust their math? Are they “working” for fun or for groceries? Are they just marketing the dream to enrich themselves and sell out? Even worse, are they working because their spreadsheets were horribly flawed and they didn’t realize that until it was too late? How can we tell?

    All we can do is be as transparent as our comfort zones allow, show our work on our exams, share the tragedies with the triumphs, and set the lifestyle example.

    It’s why I teach people (for free) how to surf.

    • I’m soooo intrigued by that! Who would lie about reaching FI, and why?! (Okay, I know the why, but that seems like an awfully odd fraud to try to perpetuate.)

      And all so true on blogs, though I do tend to trust that most people are doing it all for the right reasons. As for whether their math is sound, that is a whole other question, and I’m honestly worried about a few bloggers I read occasionally. I am not confident they have enough contingencies built in, so while their simulations may look sound if nothing ever goes wrong, I don’t buy that they will have no unexpectedly high expenses in the next 50 years!

    • I think this is where at least some of the internet retirement police are coming from — wanting to figure out whether the person preaching the gospel of the 4% rule and early retirement actually is practicing what he/she preaches. (At least that’s my more magnanimous interpretation.) Even if you’re theoretically able to live on 4% of your investments with no need for supplemental income, if you happen to be making that same amount (let’s say 40k/yr) from your blog about FIRE, then you’re not really taking the leap in the same way that someone is who fully depends on that 4% from investments only. You’ve got an additional safety net via the blog income. I think some folks ask themselves, can I really retire on 4% of my investments, or do I need a backup income stream like X and Y bloggers to REALLY feel safe in ER? That seems like a worthwhile question to ask, but one you can usually resolve internally after getting to know the blogger you’re reading and gauging his or her trustworthiness. Like, I have no doubt that MMM would have confidently pulled the trigger on early retirement even without what grew to become a very large income from his blog. (As for the rest of the retirement police who just point fingers at people and claim that what they’re doing is more akin to “work” than “retirement”….that’s lame and they can suck it.)

      • I struggle to explain that safety factor to readers. Who wants to believe that Social Security is one of the inflation-adjusted annuities which supplements the 4% SWR? Or that variable spending strategies will get them through a bear market, even though they’re very hard to model?

        I try to reassure that the skills which got you to FI will give you even more opportunities during FI. When we reached FI we didn’t have a cash-flowing rental property, a college scholarship earned by our daughter, or a spouse who’d earn a Navy Reserve pension. All of those things came *years* after FI and couldn’t be slotted into a spreadsheet projection.

        As for lying about FI, Mandi Woodruff got more than she bargained from interviewing Anton Ivanov. Jay Monee described it best on his blog:

        Then there’s “Millionaire Mommy Next Door”. I can’t figure out who’s still paying the hosting bills for that one.

      • Thanks for sharing those! So interesting. And I completely get (and often feel) the fear that people might have about FI. It’s not as easy as many claim to just go back to work if things turn south, so I think it’s rational to want some kind of guaranteed before walking away from a paycheck!

      • This is all exactly the thinking that spurred my “Don’t Listen to Us” post a few weeks ago — urging readers to look critically at what bloggers are espousing, and whether their reality matches what they’ve talked about on the blog!

  11. I don’t worry about it too much. I can define ER anyway I want. For me, it’s not working full-time. I’m still working part time for myself and it will ramp down as I get older.
    Doesn’t matter to me what other people think.
    Also, plenty of old people work after they retired. It’s not a big deal.

    • Yeah, exactly! The retirement police focus way too much on age. If someone is 70 and working part-time, no one would quibble over whether they are retired, but if you’re 40 or 50, different story!

  12. I think of my existence as “retired from looking to make money” in any material way. That allowed me to quit my job, but I still pick up a few $$$ here and there. I don’t look for it, but interesting work sometimes presents itself. Writing for a blog, or cleaning the garage IS work, but I’m not looking to make money from it.

  13. I have a tendency to refer to ourselves as ‘semi’ retired, but whatever title you choose is your choice…. your blog, your rules. And if you did post some ads or affiliate links to monetize your blog, it wouldn’t bother me.

    • Thanks for sharing both of those, Ingrid! To be honest, I can’t imagine taking the time right now to even figure out what affiliate programs I’d be interested in, so it keeps my stress level lower not to worry about all of that. ;-)

  14. Very deep post. Honestly I still stick to the anything I get paid for is work. True retirement to me is completely passive income. Work for me is exchanging time for money. But I do differentiate work at something I enjoy for the heck of it with cash as an upside versus work to survive by the concept of full financial independence. I see financial independence as a level of degrees. On the one end there is if work let you go so you could find a way to survive or what I term paritial financial independence (my family is here). Then there is I don’t need to make another dime to live my chosen lifestyle full financial independence (where I strive to go). Even when I get to the latter I don’t plan on stopping working even a full-time job until 55. Ie I won’t be retired in my mind but if someone ticked me off I could easily say fine it’s your problem.

    • Thanks! And thanks for sharing your view of these definitions. It seems like your key distinction of FI/ER vs. work is freedom, which is a totally logical way to view it all.

  15. The retirement police needs to calm TF down. It’s so, so easy to judge people on the internet that you’re never going to see again. At the end of the day it’s about doing whatever the hell you wanna do, but money isn’t the object any more. :)

  16. I think it’s all about where your passions take you. Arguably, you can be passionate about work too, and if you happen to be in that class of individuals, you’ll find it difficult to retire early if at all. These folks define themselves by their careers, just as others might define themselves by their non-work passions like travel, sports, art, etc. I personally know some people who are wired this way, and retirement is seen not as a goal but something that needs to be forced upon them.

    Even if you aren’t quite that passionate about work, I think you could add “need for status” as another motivator for pre-retirement. Career growth and recognition are big factors for retention, after all, when compensation and perks are not enough. And that bigger job title (combined with the commensurate paycheck hike) can be enough for some to stick it out a while longer.

    For me, work income and status became less important than health, family, and other passions and pastimes — displaced because of time and energy spent on work buiding the nestegg and ascending the career ladder along the way. I had always been working towards FI, but the tipping point for ER came about when I realized that I was more passionate about retirement and its opportunities than about continuing at work.

    • I agree with everything you wrote, and it brought up another thing for me, which is how we perceive others and their passions. I honestly think many of our coworkers will be SHOCKED when they hear we’re both walking away, because I think we seem to many to be those work-defined people who care a lot and spend most of our time working. Of course we don’t see it that way. ;-) I can’t imagine we’re the only people in the world who are perceived one way but feel a different way!

  17. This is a great article! And i definitely appreciate how you define financial independence, retirement, early retirement, work and leisure.

    For me, work is anything that is adding value to a specific company, personal goals, or entrepreneurial pursuits.

    Work is not directly money related. As an athlete i can tell you i work incredibly hard to become faster and more fit. Everytime i train, this is work. But this type of work has no intrinsic value besides my own health.

    If you aren’t adding value to something, then you aren’t working, you are goofing off.


    • Thanks! And regarding your training, I think working on your health IS adding value. When you’re healthy, you’re also more likely to be happier and kinder, and you’re less likely to be a drain on the health care system. I would be thrilled if more people would do that type of work! We’d all be better off for it. :-)

  18. This is a great discussion that has given me a lot to think about. I recently decided to get serious about FIRE and the trigger was a desire to spend more time working with organizations that I believe in. People have jobs working for those organizations but the pay is less than I make now and less than I currently need to survive. I would also really like to spend more time on hobbies I enjoy.

    For me, financial independence and, yes, early retirement means being able to pursue the work I enjoy regardless of whether it pays or not. If the work results in some kind of payment and how I get paid doesn’t result in me finding less enjoyment in the work then I’m still retired.

    I can see how that would be hard for someone on the outside to really understand the difference because it comes down to how I feel about it. The retirement police can’t crawl inside my head to see if I feel free or not.

    • You sound like a kindred spirit! We want to do this so we can work more with important causes and nonprofits. And thanks for sharing your definitions of FI and ER! I love how you put it — that it’s about feeling free, whether or not you look free to the retirement police.

  19. Your post made me go look up the etymology of the word ‘retire’ . Apparently it came into being in the 1500s, and from Middle French. “re” = back and “tire” from ‘tirer’ which meant ‘to draw’. So it means ‘to withdraw’ or ‘to retreat’.

    I guess what is still open to interpretation is what exactly one is withdrawing or retreating from and where one is choosing to retreat to. Maybe the retirement police should actually look at how the word originated before deciding to slap a very specific meaning onto it.

    • I remember that usage of “retire” well from English lit classes. “He retired to the drawing room.” And “retirement” meant seclusion. The usage we all know and love is far more recent!

  20. I equate it to the question, Who is an artist. Are you an artist only when your work is displayed in a museum? Are you an artist because you call yourself an artist. Do you need a degree and someone else “approval”. Really who cares! Be who you want to be. Call yourself what you want. It’s no different than any other label. If I introduced myself to you at a party as an Artist, would you ask to see my credentials?

    • Totally! It is completely the same thing. Though I am sure there are also plenty of artist police, who profess to get to decide whether someone else is an artist or not. Of course, I agree with you that it should be a self-defined term!

  21. I threw down financially independent the other day when asked what I do… somehow that went over better retiring early. What about starting to call yourselves that?

    • So this is weird, but I don’t like using FI out loud with non-finance people. “Financially” is solely about money, and there’s just something about the term to non money geeks that feels very hoity toity and not us. I’m glad it went over well for you, though! I think we’ll probably more often go with “funemployed” or something similar.

      • Ya, interesting, I said it during a meeting of my political activism group I’ve joined and that group really “got it” and didn’t take it the hoity toity way at all. But, I should keep that in mind, and as we do with anything, consider my audience before using the term. :)

      • I’m sure there are folks who wouldn’t assume anything weird in the term, and you were certainly in that company with your group. It will be interesting to see what actually comes out of our mouths when the time comes! ;-)

  22. Labels are dumb. But kudos to you for being willing to go to bat with the label lovers. I’m not sure why we insist on making everything so black and white when every adult I know acknowledges that this wild ride called life is one big shade of gray.

    I have a coworker who is retiring soon. He defines it as doing whatever he wants before he expires. It’s dark humor, but I suppose he’s really right. I have another coworker who is retired who still subs fairly regularly (when she’s not traveling the world or doting on grandbabies). She says it’s a state of mind.

    I can’t wait until you’re living the life and can give us your take on things! But if life is what we make of it, I don’t see how retirement would be anything else!

    • I can’t help continuing to pick this fight, since they picked it first. :-) Totally agree on the massive gray area, and on retirement being more a state of mind than anything. And you know I also can’t help but keep writing about all this stuff after we actually experience it for ourselves! ;-)

  23. The entire ‘retirement police’ thing is just strange. And the troll who made that comment clearly has some issues of his own to deal with instead of making comments on the internet. I have done a ton of ‘work’ for hobbies that i am passionate about. training for my 7th Ironman now and there are certain things that i “have” to do in order to meet my own expectations on race day. Is this work? not really, but absolutely something i enjoy and hold a hard firm line on meeting expectations. Very similar to you skipping sleep to meet blog deadlines that only exist in your own mind. Its not always fun, but something you do anyways. What many goal oriented people do by choice.
    clearly retirement can mean a lot of things. I work with a lot of retired military. Some of these folks ‘retired’ at age 38 after joining at age 18. They retired, to a second career. So i think it is very fair to tell people that you retired from corporate america to lead a life on your own terms following your passions. If that includes making some money with writing so be it. No one who has ever had a real corporate job would compare what you are leaving to what you are going to. It just isn’t the same.

    • Oh and that’s not even the worst troll comment I got that week! (That’d be the one the lady left about hoping our dream crashes and burns. She seemed nice.) I love how you put this in terms of your training — it isn’t technically required but it’s legitimate to require things of ourselves while pursuing goals.

  24. Is there too much focus on whether retirement is about making money or not?

    I’m not retired yet, but someday I will. However, when I retire, I’m looking for “control” in my life, not to stop making money or doing what I like doing.

    My goal is to transition from working with clients to solely handling my own portfolio. If an opportunity comes along that looks like fun, I’m going to go after it. I want freedom to pursue my dreams without the need to answer to someone else (the family excluded, of course).

    Making money is (hopefully) the by-product of the things I like to do: real estate, writing, and investing.

    Those who often cast aspersions on the things we’re seeking to achieve are doing so from the sidelines.

    • Totally agree that those who hate on this stuff are generally not pursuing FI themselves, and most often don’t even believe it’s possible. As for your Q: I truly think all of that is for you to say. None of us will ever agree on a singular definition of “retirement,” so you might as well create your own definition!

  25. I love how your posts make me think and confront my own bias.

    I see early retirement, especially before 60, treated as a status symbol and much differently than housewives or househusbands are even if their daily lives look identical. I once introduced myself as a housewife in a timeshare presentation because we wanted the free lodging and not to buy anything. It was very uncomfortable to be basically ignored and treated as ignorant for the rest of the presentation since I was used to being respected at the office. I doubt introducing myself as an early retiree would have the same effect as being a housewife.

    Is societal bias is part of why it matters so much whether someone is retired or not? Is early retirement the ultimate gold star of achievement?

    • Thanks for saying that! I’m so glad. :-) And great minds think alike on this stuff — I have a post in the works on gender and assumptions and the SAH-parent thing vs. early retired. I know that when I first started writing here and didn’t identify which half of the couple I was, almost everyone assumed I was the man. And same now that my posts are going on MarketWatch — even though my blog name is on them, nearly all the commenters (admittedly the cuckoo birds of the bunch) call me “he.” :-/

  26. Cops are everywhere. In my Urbex hobby, there is the Urbex police that defines what is real Urbex and what not. They even decide on names for abandoned locations. Ignoring is the best & go with your own definition.

    I like that the cops irritate you, it make you write good posts!

    Your definition of retirement is simple yet efficient (and applies to FI as well – extra bonus points for you). It also leaves room for a personal touch: you get to decide when it is ruled by money or passion.

    As in our home, there is an intense debate on following your passions, it is an interesting framework. For our purpose it is lacking more steps. We see things not binary. Hence, i might tune this into a more granular model.
    That will come fuse the cops even more. We will declare ourselves partial FI while both still working…! Go figure that one out 😎

  27. Like your thinking! It’s a simple statement, but complex at the same time as it affects everybody differently. We don’t really use the term ‘retire’ as we are still stuck at the definition society has given to it. We like to think in the phases of working because we need to, and working because we want to. Which fits with your model as well.

    I truly believe it has nothing to do with money, there are a lot of retirees who have difficulties to make ends need. Or people who continue working although the have amassed a fortune already.

    What interests me though is that there is a whole gray area in here in which you can be in 2 (or more) phases at the same time. For example investing is something we like to do, but also need to do (in our view) in order to become Financial Independent. At the same time if you have a job for the money, but you like it sooo much that you keep on doing the same work after you hit your FI target, does it still counts as work?

    Great topic to keep a mind busy.

    • Thanks! I wouldn’t even begin to try to answer your questions because they’re yours, and therefore yours to answer. :-) If you have enough money not to work but choose to keep going, it’s your choice entirely whether to call that work, financial independence, etc. (It’s probably not early retired under any circumstances if there was no quitting.) ;-) It’s a great point, too, that a lot of retirees struggle to make ends meet. I think part of my motivation in thinking this stuff through is to stop the implicit age-linked ideas present in this stuff. No one over 70 would be questioned about being retired or not even if they were working to pay their bills, but that’s not true for someone in their 30s or 40s.

  28. To me, “work” is doing what I want to do and achieving success! Hence I don’t really see it as work – I get restless when I’m not working. And I don’t think I’ll ever retire because work is so much fun. I can’t imagine sitting around being unproductive.

  29. Isn’t work = force x distance? Wow, my physics teacher would be proud. There are a few things from high school that really stuck :) I love your definition but I haven’t had time to really even sit and do some heavy thinking on this. I can’t wait to leave my full-time job and have more time to reflect. You have a number of posts that I need to revisit that have deep , meaningful conversations that I need to have with myself! I need to stay focused for now on everyday to get all that needs to be done…done.

    • #physicsnerd — I love it! I could never quite get my head around the idea, though, that if you push with all your might against a stationery object, and it doesn’t move, that that equals zero “work.” ;-) And your comment is such a nice compliment! I hope, as you have time to think more, you’ll share your emerging insights! xo

  30. Thanks for your blog. First time commenting.

    Not sure what all this means, but….I retired ‘early’ (if there’s a def. for early), actually on my 55th birthday a year ago. At least that was the day I left work, with vacation to burn up. Tomorrow (May 1) will be one year from the official date, when my pension considers me retired.

    It will also be the day I start PT work with a co. I was at 30 years ago. One year of retirement was better than outstanding, and I have not a shred of regret. I was very ready to go. But this past year got me all rested up. I resist admitting to boredom because I don’t find life boring. But I know I want to contribute—I do some volunteer activities, but they weren’t (aren’t) enough, and some just didn’t work out. I have ‘minor’ hobbies, none that would keep me passionate for the duration. And I’ve got friends, nearly all still working. And the gym is full of folks very much my senior. None of that comes as a surprise.

    I also tried to figure out what it was I like about work—rarely is it the ‘work product’. I enjoy working toward goals, on a team, and with good, generously-minded people. The bosses I will work for starting tomorrow are the same guys I worked for 30 years ago, and just as terrific now as they were then.

    I feel a lot of ^^^ that was pretty mundane, sorry if it is.

    Long before I retired, I spent considerable time thinking about it, reading books (and a few blogs :>), taking myself on long retreats multiple times to try to think it out. All that investment was well worth it b/c little about the experience was shocking or surprising; and this turn toward work-for-pay seems rather predictable as part of the trajectory too.

    I had promised myself a ‘gap year’ with no specified end date or plan (it could have been a ‘gap three years’ :> I suppose), and that’s been accomplished. Energy and enthusiasm has been restored, so while I may not be bored, I am restless and saying, ‘Put me in Coach.’

    Funny This: Starting tomorrow, I work one week, then take two for vacation (pre-planned), and the new boss said, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just leave a message on your phone that there’s no need to come back after vacation.’ Yeah, he has a sense of humor too.

    We’ll see how it goes. Onward.

    • Thanks for sharing your story — and for commenting for the first time! It’s always interesting to hear from folks who have done it, and how it goes for them. Seems like everyone is a little bit different! In your case, I admire that you were able to acknowledge to yourself that maybe permanent early retirement wasn’t what you wanted, and you changed course accordingly. I see some folks talking up the idea so passionately that I wonder if they’d even be willing to acknowledge they were bored or ready to get back into the work game, even if they were! I hope your new part-time gig is going well!

      • Thanks again! I wanted to circle back to this to see what I said. I confess to forgetting about it in the interim and had not seen your affirming comments until today (thanks!). The jury’s still out on this. The work, in certain respects, is harder than I thought it would be, but I’m not sure I had very clear expectations. And ‘hard’ may be good; at least, if the multitudinous articles written about pressing the brain to perform have any merit (I suppose I generally think they do). But I remain ambivalent. There’s something odd about the psychology of not having to work, but working anyway. It’s weird. I have little fire in the belly, but then, enjoying (hm, enjoying??? hm, hm) the buzz from rising early, beating the traffic, doing something of value for a small biz, then heading home early (again, to beat the traffic). But with the low-burn in the belly, I wonder how much I am putting forward as a service to my new employer. It seems unfair to them somehow.

        As I mentioned above, the guys I work for are the best, super best. So it’s a really confusing place to be: I feel like it would be biting the hand that feeds me to quit, or it would be rude, or it would be burning a bridge that doesn’t deserve to be burned, or what? I am enormously grateful for the opportunity, but don’t really have a good grip on why I’m doing it. Is it only to ‘keep myself busy’ and get out of the house? To be ‘productive?’ Hm.

        In any case, I am showing up every morning and trying. I wish I was better at it than I am (while I had a super career, was well liked, performed well, etc etc, I suffer from feelings of inadequacy and self-confidence, complete w/ self deprecating/effacing humor, etc).

        So feedback is welcome even as I ask the rhetorical question: Is this a good fit, sense of purpose or meaning?

      • Um, Self Here, replying to Self. :)

        Today, I actually brought to a close (I avoid “I quit”, it seems far too harsh for how it all went down) the job.

        I did not sleep well so had plenty of the ungodly hours to contemplate my thoughts. After communicating with my amazing bosses, they more-than-kindly-and-courteously agreed that they wanted what was best for me too, ie, that it was not a good fit for either of us in the long run.

        This was likely the gentlest end-of-job experience ever on Planet earth.

        It is probably the case that I want to work with the Church (ahem, more than I already do) but in what capacity is just not known yet. Irons in the fire….

        Onward and Forward to the next adventure! (Thanks for acting as my sounding board and journal!)

      • CONGRATS GREG!!! What an exciting development, and how wonderful that you were able to end that work chapter on such a positive and gentle note. Sending you good wishes for your next chapter!

      • I know you’ve since “resolved” this situation, but I think you raise questions that won’t go away in your life. I think there’s rarely anything easy or straightforward in life, and those who are best at things often feel most inadequate or least satisfied, which is a completely nonsensible paradox. The privilege of FI is getting to choose what work is the best fit for you, whether that’s because it’s most fun, or it gives you the greatest sense of purpose or meaning. I think for us, we’ll choose to do some of both. And if we feel inadequate in work, then we’ll probably move on to something else, even if most people would have to suck it up and work through that inadequacy. What a great thing not to have to confront that question constantly, and to get to focus your attention on other questions that are more interesting to you!

  31. I think the early retired label has become as popular as it is solely because people see ways to profit off it.

    I personally just can’t imagine not working for the next fifty to sixty years, I’d be bored as hell. And it kind of irks me that so many bloggers apparently have zero empathy. “How could you be bored?” is such a common blog post theme

    If you spend so many years so focused on saving money and nothing else, How could you NOT end up bored at the end of that?

    Kudos to you guys for not embracing 100% delayed gratification.

    I’d rather focus on finding a job (or some activity) that I can do consistently and enjoy. If financial security can’t buy you the ability to pick your job or activity, then what’s the point?

    • Well you know I totally disagree with you on the profit notion. ;-) (Ahem, zero profit!) And on the boredom idea, I can only speak for me, but my view is less about not empathizing with those who would be bored not working, but more about questioning why someone would go down this path if you’re not excited about not working. There’s no shame in that at all! But to me, if I knew I always wanted to work, no way in hell would I want to save as aggressively as we do now — I’d rather live it up a bit, enjoy more travel, maybe have a few more nice things, and spend more to support charitable causes. So I think the question is more about that: if the idea of not working seems boring, why bother pursuing FI?

      • My answer is “Why not?” I’ve always saved for savings sake. Better to go through life with a surplus than a deficit. :D Tons of people pursue FI with no intentions of retiring. If I had a kid or a wife, or an extra million bucks, I might be more excited about early retirement. At this moment, it seems like a massive waste of my time and talents.

      • I’m glad you’re on a path now that makes you happier. :::Back to working on my plan to massively waste my time and talents::: ;-)

      • Who said I was happier? And I don’t know why you would think I applied my comment to your intentions? You’ve essentially removed $$ from the equation in your life. Why wouldn’t you retire when you loathe the work travel so much? If you want to “be productive” in retirement rather than embrace leisure, more power to you.

        To me, it makes more sense to try to target a career with a healthy work life balance rather than to target a more lucrative career with zero work life balance in order to reach retirement as quickly as possible. Especially since i apparently don’t have anything I want to do that work was getting in the way of. That’s my circumstances, it doesn’t have to be anyone else’s.

      • I did not mean to be a jerk, and am sure whatever I say next will be the wrong thing, too. I am just hopeful that you’re clearer on what WILL make you happier long term, and that you’re adjusting your life accordingly in recognition of that. :-)

  32. I am conflicted. I have the job that pays my bills and the job I love. A big part of my definition is that it is work if I would not do it without money attached to it. That rubs weird on my hopes for my business. I do some of that on a voluntary basis and intend to “give away” more of my expertise once I am financially able to. The work is valuable regardless of receiving payment. However, there is another caveat. I’ve noticed that there is a strong lack of respect for my time for folks who receive my work for free. They put less value on it because they are not financially involved. This should not be so. I’ve talked to other professionals in my field and they all say the same thing. It’s intriguing and frustrating.

    • I totally see this paradox. And I find this occasionally with clients as well, when they are not attached to the budget that is paying for my time through my company. (Most of my clients are wonderful — I’m talking about a select few.) ;-) So yeah, it’s almost like it’s not work if you would do it for free anyway AND people who are receiving your help for free appreciate that fact!

  33. Love your post, but like other FIRE bloggers, I feel that you are trying to make the box fit, even if it doesn’t.
    Financial independence and retirement are not synonymous!

    Someone who gets an advanced business degree with the intention to work on Wall Street and make tons of money is not retired once he has accumulated enough to live off it ’til the rest of his life. Michael Jackson didn’t retire at age 20-something, nor did Bill Gates retire early, or Warren Buffet, and they are certainly financially independent.

    Senators John McCain, Nancy Pelosi, and many other members of Congress are financially independent, and so is President Trump, but are all of them retired? O.J. Simpson attorneys Cochran and Kardashian were financially independent when they took him on as a client, but were they retired?

    You are right, anybody has the right to define what’s normal, retired, or perverted, in their own way, but that won’t mean it’s an accepted definition.

    No matter how you twist it, financial independence means you are free from having to work for a living, and retired means you stopped working and focus on things that you enjoy. A financially independent person who enjoys working, whether it be as an investment banker, attorney, or CEO of a company, is not retired. I won’t try to make this fit to your personal case, but I will tell you that I do not consider MMM retired. He just changed his field of work from engineer to home builder, and since he’s financially independent, he decides when he wants to work, and how much.