When you join the financial independence and early retirement community — either by writing a blog or reading blogs, or both — this interesting thing happens: You see or talk to lots of people doing the same thing you’re doing, working toward early retirement. And at some point, you forget how rare what we’re doing is, and the whole concept just starts to feel normal.
That for sure happened for us. Even though we’d never met another early retirement aspirant in real life prior to connecting with other bloggers and readers (other than our dads, but that was for different reasons). Even though we’d occasionally get funny looks, or the inevitable “How old are you?” when we’d tell seatmates on planes about our plans.
And that’s all human nature. We adapt to our surroundings. Even things we once found crazy can become our normal if we’re immersed in them. And this idea is nothing if not immersive. After most of us realize that we can shave actual decades off of our careers, it’s easy to become obsessed. Most of us go straight to the deep end and start doing everything we can to slash expenses and save faster. We read a ton about early retirement, devouring blogs well after we already understand all that we need to know financially to achieve our goals. (Thanks for that, by the way!)
If we’re lucky, we also start meeting other people doing what we’re doing in real life, and we think, “Look at all these other people doing what I’m doing! And they’re not weirdos!” (Except for Mr. 1500, of course. Huge weirdo.)
And realizing that all of these other people not so different from ourselves are actively pursuing and even achieving this huge, formidable life goal — well, it starts to see a lot less huge, and a lot less formidable. It just seems like what you do.
The last few weeks have been an intense time for us — the anxiety of preparing to give notice and actually doing it, the emotion of telling people we admire and love working with that we’re walking away and the relief of no longer carrying around this big secret — but through it, we’ve had an incredibly grounding and powerful reminder, too. And that’s what this post is all about.
Remembering That Our Normal Is Not Normal
Even with how relieved we’re both feeling, now that our news is out, there’s still a lot to process emotionally. I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to respond to every note that my firm’s leaders have sent me, because each one feels so big and momentous, and also because they feel like saying goodbye, and I’m not completely ready for that yet. (That’s part of why we gave two+ months of notice, so we’d have time to say our goodbyes properly.)
But beyond the personal sentiments in those notes, the thing that I’ve found most notable is how remarkable each note says what we’re doing is. And these are from people who outearn me. It feels wonderful to know that they are proud of me, of course, but what’s struck me is that people with even greater means than ours seem to be expressing some version of “I could never do that.” (No one has actually said that, and perhaps we’ve helped inspire some rethinking of life plans.)
And since those give notice conversations, we’ve talked to a few other people about what we’re doing who didn’t already know, and their responses have been hugely congratulatory. And, oddly, my first thought has been, Why should you congratulate us for doing something so normal?
Ohhhhhh, that’s right. This isn’t normal at all.
Most people truly can’t fathom saving more than half of what they earn. (And I don’t buy that it’s just because they’re these mythical mindless consumer zombies.) Plenty of people can’t imagine not working, though I think their numbers are smaller, and the real perceived obstacle is in actually achieving early retirement, not just dreaming about it.
We used to know that, but along the line we forgot.
Remembering How Lucky We Are (#Gratitude)
I firmly believe that those of us who are able to pursue early retirement are the luckiest people who’ve ever lived. For most of human history, very basic concerns like obtaining food and shelter consumed most of our time and mind space. Most humans who’ve ever lived had very little in the way of free time, and basically knew a life of all work until death, whether that work was hunting and gathering, or practicing early agriculture, or even being enslaved. Then, as technology improved and we could be more efficient in our labor, some of us started to have a little free time, but the work itself was still intensely physical and back-breaking, and most people still only earned enough to subsist on. In the last century, work has become less physically demanding, with some of us starting to have no physical strain whatsoever in our jobs, but “retirement” was still a new concept, and not something that everyone achieved with any level of financial comfort.
It’s an extremely recent concept to be able to do work that doesn’t break our bodies or suck our souls, earn more than we need to survive, and retire young enough to be able to pursue things we dreamed of doing as kids. And even within this extremely recent concept, only a tiny fraction of us have both the means and the motivation to make early retirement a reality.
This is all something that we’ve known and felt grateful for throughout this journey, but people’s recent reactions to our news has cemented this for us in a much more visceral way. We feel it like we never have before.
We are so, so lucky, and so, so grateful.
Killing That Comparison Once and For All
When you join the early retirement echo chamber, you meet all these folks who are crazy extreme outliers by any societal definition, but who are just normal here. Folks who retired before age 35 — or even in their 20s. And in that whole “what you surround yourself with becomes normal” thinking, you forget that retiring by 35 is freakishly incomprehensible in the real world and just accept it. And maybe you even have thoughts like, “Wow, our retirement at 41 and 38 isn’t even special,” or you feel like you came late to the party. (Guilty!) Of course, those thoughts are bananas, but it’s easy to lose perspective.
Likewise, maybe you come in feeling pretty proud of how much of your income you’re saving. And then you read about people saving 60, 70, even 80 percent of their post-tax income, and suddenly your [insert your rate here] doesn’t feel so awesome — or maybe you even start to feel like you’re failing because you can’t save 70 percent. But the problem if you’re doing that is you’re comparing yourself to the wrong marker. That’s like saying that finishing a marathon isn’t good enough because you didn’t run it as fast as the world record holder. You still finished the marathon! (And maybe I’m just using this example because my marathon time was a sloooooooow 5:25. Hey, I was injured! And I finished!) ;-)
It’s so worthwhile to step out of our community sometimes and reground ourselves in the real world. A world where just being able to choose the timing of your own traditional retirement already puts you in the minority. A world where retiring any sooner than the average retirement age — 62 — is a big win. A world where just having an emergency fund saved puts you ahead of the masses — and gives you peace of mind most people never enjoy. A world where saving 20 or 30 percent of your income is already impressive and rare, and where saving more than 50 percent is essentially unthinkable.
So many of us here are beating many of those metrics, and maybe all of them. And that’s worth remembering.
Have you had any recent experiences lately that have reminded you how rare early retirement is? Or how lucky we all are? Or have just re-grounded you in the financial realities that most people fact that are so different from what we all become accustomed to after we change our mindsets and start planning for early retirement? Anyone reading want to chime in that early retirement IS bonkers and we’re all bonkers? ;-) All thoughts welcome! Let’s chat in the comments!