I was feeling particularly overwhelmed the other night with the idea of having to work the 9 to 5 for the next 30 years of my life. Reading blogs like Go Curry Cracker, Mr. Money Mustache, and Y Travel Blog are incredibly inspirational, but the fact is that I haven’t made the same choices over the past 10 years that have positioned me to do what they’re doing. Combine that with reading about how Pat Flynn made over $150K last month, and I allowed all of that to lead me to wonder if I should be doing something differently in my life.
I was talking on the phone with my dad that night and asked him if he ever wanted to retire in his early 30’s when he was that age. He told me that he absolutely did and that he sometimes wondered if the daily grind was really all there was to life. He concluded, though, that it’s generally just not feasible to retire at a young age.
“But Dad,” I said “there are people doing it. I read about them on the internet.”
“So how are they doing it?” he asked me.
“Well,” I said, “a lot of them just work their tails off in conjunction with living a lifestyle of extreme frugality for the first 10 or so years of their marriage or professional careers, and then they’re set.”
“Do these people have kids?” he asked me.
“Not usually,” I said, “but some of them have a kid or two.”
“Okay,” said my dad, “so what would you do if you retired? Become a traveling hedonist contributing nothing to society other than some support to the travel & tourism industry?
“Uhhhh. Yes?” I stammered, a little less sure of my position at this point.
Still not catching my vision, my dad told me that despite his love for travel, he still wouldn’t necessarily follow that path and that it would quickly grow old for him.
Our conversation was just one of many recent instances that have caused me to think about the relationship between money, retirement, and happiness.
The slow lane is not the only lane
Before I was really dialed into the online personal finance community and many of the ideas and literature out there, I felt like I was alone with regard to some of my feelings about retirement. I would constantly talk to my wife about how ironic it is that we work during our most healthy and productive years, missing out on quality time with our kids, only to be able to enjoy the fruits of our labors after the kids are gone and the arthritis is really starting to settle in.
During my first few years out of college when I was working in public accounting, I got my hands on as many of the “do what you love” books as I could. I was awestruck by the idea that I could actually do something I enjoyed to make a living because I grew up with my dad telling us how that worked out for his brothers and why he chose a less exciting but more enabling path. The one thing I just couldn’t get over, though, was the fact that all of the folks writing the “do what you love” books got wealthy by writing books about how you can be successful doing what you love. See the problem there?
Then just a year or two ago, I downloaded a copy of the The Millionaire Fastlane after reading some of the reviews, and I found it to be a breath of fresh air. While the author is a little irreverent at times, he articulated many of the very same thoughts I had been having over the past several years about money, retirement, and wealth. When I was reading it, I would often shout out to Amanda, “This is what I’ve been saying for years!”
He talks about how getting rich slowly is a form of financial mediocrity, and he calls it “the Slowlane.” It goes something like this:
“Go to school, get good grades, graduate, get a good job, save 10%, invest in the stock market, max your 401(K), slash your credit cards, and clip coupons…then, someday, when you are, oh, 65 years old, you will be rich!”
That’s all good advice, by the way, but most of us are inappropriately conditioned to believe that it’s the only option, and he talks about how to break out of that mindset.
I followed that book up with a copy of the the 4-Hour Workweek that I picked up from the library. Though not as groundbreaking as some make it out to be, I still found it to be very motivational. There were two things that really resonated with me from the book: the concept of mini-retirements and the story of the Mexican fisherman.
This concept has been out there for a while now, but when I finally read about it last year, it just made sense to me. Why wait until we are older and perhaps not as healthy or able to enjoy life to retire? Why not take several mini-retirements all throughout our lives? It’s a chance to break up your normal routine, get to know yourself better, grow closer to your family, pursue a passion, and determine the next direction you should take in life.
This is when my wife and I really started talking about doing something like this. There are plenty of legitimate reasons or excuses not to do something like this. What about the kids? What about school? What about the money, job, logistics, etc. These are all valid concerns, but none that we feel like we can’t overcome (we hope). We are taking our time and have made it an official goal by inaugurating it into our personal financial baby steps (number 7).
The Mexican fisherman
The story of the Mexican fisherman has been around for decades. It was written by German writer Heinrich Böll, and it really hit home with me when I first read it last year.
An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The Mexican replied, “only a little while.” The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”
The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”
To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”
“But what then?” Asked the Mexican.
The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”
“Millions – then what?”
The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
The end for which all other ends are a means
Think of all the “ends” in your life. They likely include some of the following: getting a promotion, getting married, having children, getting a degree, learning a new skill, becoming financially independent, buying a house, getting that new car, finding your dream job, retiring, etc. We are constantly striving to “get” and to “have.” But what is the ultimate goal, or the ultimate “end?”
We seek all of these things because we want to find true happiness, or true fulfillment. Most of the time, however, we discover that happiness is much closer than we think. That’s why I love the story of the Mexican fisherman. We believe that if we can accumulate or have so much by a certain time that we will be happy, not realizing that happiness lies right under our noses.
A friend and I recently agreed that saving one million dollars by the time we turn forty was a challenging, yet reasonable goal. I told my wife that’s what I wanted to do. She asked me why we need a million extra dollars in our retirement fund when we’re 40. The best answer I could come up with was “because Ross and I decided that would be a good goal to work toward.” Then I realized what a dumb answer that was. It wasn’t that we really needed it or that it would make us happy, it was just a number to chase because I love money.
Sometimes I ask myself “How would my life be different if I had one million dollars in the bank right now?” The truth is that it wouldn’t be much different at all. I would invest and save as much of it as I could. I’d probably still frequent Taco Bell and pick up loose change on the side walk. We would still do the bedtime battle with our kids every night. Maybe I’d have more peace of mind, but we have that now thanks to our emergency fund.
While you or I probably won’t retire in our 30s or spend years at a time traveling the world, we can be happy now. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to work hard and do what I can to retire early, but it’s critical to remember that happiness is not contingent upon having a certain amount of money (assuming your basic needs are met) or a certain retirement age.
Contrast this with the Game of Life‘s objective that says “once everyone’s retired, the wealthiest player wins!” If you find yourself agreeing with this, it’s time to change your thoughts! I’m currently going through Dale Carnegie training at work, so I’ll leave you with a Dale Carnegie quote.
“It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.”
Have you had any financial awakenings recently?