Way back in the early, all-lowercase days of this blog, I shared one of my big motivators for wanting to retire as early as possible: the potential that I’d develop the same genetic disability that my dad has, which forced him to stop working at 43.
That’s all true, but it’s only half the story.
The other half is related, but also entirely different. People get it right away when I say, “I don’t know how long I’ll have my full mobility, and I can’t risk spending all my best years at the office.” I’m positive that my former employer took my news that I was leaving far better because I had that reason than they would have if I’d said, “Eh, I’d just rather hang out all day than do this.” A looming genetic disability that kicks in early in middle age is something people understand on a gut level.
My other reason requires a little more explanation.
The Biggest Influence on My Decision to Pursue Early Retirement
My dad stopped working when I was in seventh grade, just before my parents split up. In an especially cruel twist, his employer laid him off just before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) kicked in, which would have forced them to accommodate him, but fortunately, he was still able to receive payments from his employer’s long-term disability policy. He also started receiving Social Security disability (SSD) payments and went on Medicare for his insurance. Those payments were the only thing standing between the middle class upbringing I’d always known and abject poverty, and I’ll forever be grateful for them.
But getting those payments wasn’t a one-and-done thing. Every year an inspector from the insurance company would show up — “inspector” was my name for them, anyway — to try to catch my dad faking. They wanted to see with their own eyes that he still “looked” disabled and that he wasn’t secretly working while also drawing disability insurance payments. They’d make him take aptitude tests to try to prove that he could go back to work and get off their dole. They’d ask me prying questions to see if I’d slip up and say something incriminating about my dad, like that he was secretly drawing an income from another source. Of course, all my dad wanted was to be able to work. But that wasn’t possible, and this inspector coming in over and over and treating him like a fraud was beyond insulting. My dad had no choice but to put up with it.
And then there was the ongoing frustration of Social Security cost-of-living adjustments that seldom kept up with the cost of inflation, and the fact that a disabled parent on Medicare had no option at the time for getting their child insured. I got health insurance most of the time through my mom’s plan, but she switched jobs so often that I frequently had to endure lengthy waiting periods before I was covered, something that stressed my dad out to no end given that I have always been the sick one who got all the strange illnesses.
If you’d asked my dad at 43 if he was retired, he would have told you that was a ridiculous question. He didn’t choose retirement, at least not then, and he only came to accept the label years later. He’d much rather have been working, earning his own paycheck, contributing to society and modeling a strong work ethic to his tween daughter. Like every person I’ve ever met whose disability interferes with their ability to work, he’d rather have worked long hours in a stressful job but been completely healthy than drawn a paycheck that felt unearned while sitting at home.
And when he left the house, there were other indignities, too. The times people would chase him down at the grocery store and tell him what a bad person he was for parking in a handicapped space (legally, of course). Only people in wheelchairs are “actually disabled,” they’d insist right to his face, the face of a person whose disability is impossible to miss. Too polite to tell these people to f#@$ off, he’d feel forced to explain his medical condition to strangers, who then felt entitled to be the arbiters of whether he was truly deserving or not. Eventually, he stopped using the handicapped spaces, just to avoid the trouble.
I saw all of this, and knew I didn’t want to repeat it in my own life.
What People Get Wrong
Maybe it’s because the American Dream is based on the idea of working hard, but we seem to have a collective sense of revulsion at people who don’t work in this country. We assume they don’t want to work, and that they’re living large on some magically enormous welfare check, as if that’s actually a thing (it’s not). My experience says it’s exactly the opposite: as humans, we are driven to do work that matters, and we feel compelled to contribute to society. When you believe you can’t contribute, it’s not a blessing, it’s a curse. And that’s before you have to deal with all the people who will tell you — because they will — how ashamed of yourself you should be for taking hand-outs.
(PF Geeks wrote an excellent post about gaining a new perspective on this topic that you should check out.)
Then there are the notes like this that we now receive fairly often:
Never mind that the “USA! USA! USA!!!” in the middle of the email kind of undermines his credibility, he’s sharing a sentiment that many people who apparently think it’s a good use of their time to email strangers on the internet seem to believe (and which plenty of others no doubt believe, too):
That by not working, we’re not only deadbeats, we also hate America.
This guy with nothing better to do thinks we’re deadbeats for not contributing to the U.S. GDP. (Seriously, bro. Get a hobby.) Others have said it’s because we receive a discount on our health insurance, which should only be for the poor (though they often go on to disparage the poor in the same note, so it’s clear they just don’t want anyone to have help, ever). Still others don’t believe that we could possibly have saved as much money as we did without some massive inheritance, so must also be liars with ulterior motives. But for all of them, the central thesis statement is fundamentally the same: You don’t work, so you’re a deadbeat.
And that’s where they are dead wrong.
Not only is “deadbeat” the most offensive and false way to describe someone who’d much rather be healthy and working, but I saved for early retirement exactly so that I’d never have to rely on anyone else to pay my bills.
It Was Never Only About Potential Disability
In all of those indignities I saw my dad suffer — the insurance inspectors who believed he was a fraud and treated him accordingly, the people who felt they were entitled to be the judge and jury about his health status based on where he parked, and the every-single-day wish that he could be working and contributing instead — I saw powerlessness.
Which was all the harder to witness because of who my dad is. Honest to a fault, driven by integrity, deeply curious about the world around him and committed to sharing what he knows, my dad is the last person I ever expected to see made powerless by circumstance. He’d worked his way out of poverty in the South to college at West Point, and then proved himself as fast-track management material in the corporate world. He’d even made good money decisions before his disability ended his career, though my mom took advantage of that in the divorce and weakened his financial footing considerably. To me, he was a superhero. And it crushed my soul to see a superhero feel like he wasn’t in control of his own destiny.
Though seeing all of that didn’t translate into ideal money decisions from day one, I always carried with me a sense that I wanted to be in control of my own life. And when I hit my late-20s and realized that I might only have a decade or so before I had less say in the matter, my priorities shifted almost immediately.
I could have easily said, “I don’t need to save money because there’s a disability check in my future that will cover me.” Because here’s something I’ve always known but never shared here before: I was always going to retire early, one way or another. I wanted it to be on my own terms, and to come from a place of power, not powerlessness. I could feel that clock ticking, and knew that a day would very likely come when I’d have to stop working and accept assistance, if I didn’t create another option for myself soon. And this isn’t an abstract notion. I’ve had more pain and mobility challenges this year than ever in the past, despite subtracting work stress. (Because early retirement is not a cure-all, and anyone who insists it is is selling snake oil.) It’s now clear that I’m unlikely to get my dad’s particular manifestation of our genetic disease, but I am facing down a whole different set of challenges that will only ever get worse, not better. It may very well be that I retired just in the nick of time.
No one chooses to be powerless, or to stay powerless if they have any choice at all. But plenty of people still end up there, often through no fault of their own. I’ll forever be grateful that I got a glimpse into my potential future, and that I had the opportunity to create for myself a very different path. That’s something not everyone gets, and I know exactly how lucky I am to be in this position.
Share Your Thoughts
Did you have any experiences growing up that gave you more of a sense of urgency to retire early, or at least to put yourself on solid financial footing? Have you had any learning moments, like PF Geek’s, of seeing things from a different perspective and realizing that the way we talk about something is incorrect? Any other thoughts to share? Let’s chat in the comments!
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