Becoming rich or retiring early are not good life goals
I know a number of people who want to be “rich,” or perhaps “affluent aspirational” is a better way to phrase it. They want to project the outward persona of having wealth and being upper class, which can take the form of cars, clothing, jewlry, watches, housing, or other ways of projecting status (e.g., organizational affiliation). I think such desires are either a) indicative of a desire to climb or establish status in a socially stratified society, or b) a blind obedience to the mass instructions on how to live life that we call advertising. Item A and B are also inescapably linked.
Regardless of the motive, I think such pursuit is not a great goal for one’s life. For one, most of us in the US are already exceedingly rich when measured against the global population and the historical human population. Rather, I think a more justifiable goal associated with the accumulation of wealth is to achieve financial independence. Here in the financial blog section of the interwebs, financial independence is often associated with early retirement. In fact, the common acronym is FIRE (Financially Independent Retired Early). The idea here is to accumulate enough invested money so one can live on the proceeds for the rest of one’s life and not depend on paid labor to support one’s (usually frugal) lifestyle.
I think this goal makes more sense, but not necessarily the “retired early” part. The question we must all ask ourselves in our examined lives is, “What do I want to do in my limited time alive?” Or, more commonly, “How can I be happy in life?” Based on the conventional FIRE blog on the web, this goes something like: work, live frugally, save enough so you can live on 3% or 4% of your invested assets, quit your job, and do whatever the hell you want for the rest of your life. I generally subscribe to the first three steps and the fifth step, but I’m not sure about the fourth (quit your job).
If those who want to live high-rolling lifestyles want to project an outward image of high social status, those who want to retire early seek autonomy in their lives. This is certainly my goal. Like many introverted and analytical personality types, I value individual autonomy very highly, so the idea of being in complete control of my daily actions is very appealing. The problem comes when we start to examine what a mid-40’s person does with their time all week.
Let’s say I quit my job and did whatever I wanted in a self-directed way, leaving out any outwardly productive efforts. I would sleep in, eat breakfast leisurely, meditate and do yoga, exercise, have lunch, read or surf the web in the afternoon or maybe go to a museum, do a few chores, then make and eat dinner, and watch some media or read until bed time. Surely, this wouldn’t be every day, but that’s what I picture doing most days. I think I would tire of this leisurely but mundane lifestyle by week’s end, so early retirement in its truest sense is probably not for me.
While true “early retirement” would probably be very boring, I think there are strong arguments for “financial independence.” Having enough money to retire early if one wanted to, or just enough money to turn down “opportunities” that aren’t a good fit is actually where it’s at. Being successful in life means self actualizing – or achieving one’s highest capabilities as a human being. Living in a self actualized way entails employing one’s kindness, creativity, and intellect on a daily basis in a pursuit in which you value yourself and feel valued by others. It is hard to actualize without being productive in some way – creatively, intellectually, socially, or physically. In other words, work is inherently rewarding if we peel away the yucky parts that we don’t like – like lack of control, hierarchy, drudgery, etc.
That is where the financially independent part comes in. If we can live a disciplined financial life to accumulate the money needed to be relatively secure without the constant necessity of paid labor, work can take on an entirely different light in our lives. If money in the bank can give us the ability to say “no” when we aren’t interested in doing certain things (working overtime, working for a bad boss, bad clients, or in a soul-sucking job), we can then pursue work that is fulfilling. Fulfilling work may be intellectually stimulating, spiritually uplifting, socially rewarding, or just at a slower pace. Once we have the financial buffer to put us in control of when we sell our time for money, we can achieve such pleasures in our current work place, at another workplace, or at our own workplace.
Put simply, having capital income gives employees more control at the bargaining table, and sometimes that capital can help an employee to go off and become an entrepeneur doing exactly the same work they were doing but with more freedom.
What do you think? Is the real reward of financial security the autonomy it brings, or is there some merit in buying expensive things and being lazy?