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Outside the Box: So much of retirement planning is wishful thinking — what I’ve learned after 3 years of actually being retired

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This article was first published in December 2020

About this time two years ago, I shared the struggles of my first year of early retirement. That blog post flowed out of me in about an hour. 

It ended up being one of the most read things I’ve ever written, viewed by several hundred thousand people. After seeing the impact that had, I assumed I would share my thoughts and lessons in a recurring annual blog post.

Year 2: Nearly 2 years into early retirement, here’s all that I’ve gotten wrong :

Well, 2020 has been quite a year. So here is what I’ve learned…

Plans are worthless but planning is indispensable

If 2020 hasn’t demonstrated that the future is unpredictable, I’m not sure what will.

Though we can’t predict what will happen, we can be cognizant of chance and luck. We can develop a robust planning process that enables us to adapt to better or worse than expected outcomes, even if we don’t know what the causes of those outcomes will be in advance.

This March I shared the thought process I used to analyze how to manage my and my parent’s investments amidst extreme volatility. I reached different conclusions for each of us, then acted decisively despite imperfect information.

Both decisions were correct in hindsight. That has nothing to do with the short-term results that I frankly would have never predicted. Instead, they were correct because they were made by following a process developed from planning ahead of time.

You may never feel safe

Can I retire yet? When people ask this question, they’re really asking: Do I have enough money to maintain my desired lifestyle forever? Unfortunately, there are too many unknowable variables to ever answer that question with certainty. 

Ponder that for a minute. It’s scary.

When I left my career in December 2017, we knew Kim’s ongoing income would cover most if not all our expenses. It was still scary to give up the security of the high savings rate we had as a two-income household. When the market dropped a year later, it was confirmation that we were right to be scared.

In 2019, the markets rebounded. We were made whole and much more. It was a rare year when virtually every asset class went up. All investors made money, it was just a matter of how much. But everything’s not supposed to go up simultaneously. That’s rare. It couldn’t last. That scared us.

This March, the bottom fell out of the stock market as the impact of the pandemic became apparent. There were debates about whether we were in a recession or a depression. Of course, we were scared.

As the year progressed, many segments of the economy remained restricted. Yet our portfolio started going back up. Over the past month, the pandemic substantially worsened. The stock market set new all-time highs. Sometimes things don’t make sense. It doesn’t feel real. It feels… scary.

Do you notice a theme here? As a community of savers, many of us find security in building wealth. We therefore find it scary to spend from volatile portfolios.

It’s normal to be afraid, regardless of what is happening around us. That doesn’t make it healthy or productive. Making big changes requires acknowledging our fears and taking action in spite of them.

Priorities won’t magically change

When sharing my thoughts one year after early retirement, I wrote priorities won’t magically change when you retire. After three years, I believe this even more strongly.

So many of us cling to stories that simply are not true. We use work as an excuse for everything that we choose not to make a priority in our lives or that we’re afraid to do.

I’m going to be brutally honest. If there’s anything that you think you will do in retirement that you’re not doing now, you probably won’t.

There is a good reason you’re not already doing that thing. It is not a priority in your life. If you want things to change, you need to own that.

If you plan to start exercising, meditating, or eating better when you retire, start now!

If you plan to become a better spouse, parent, child, or friend when you retire, start now!

If you are going to try that hobby, develop that new skill, or learn that foreign language you’ve always wanted to when you retire, start now!

If you want to travel in retirement, start traveling now! (OK, you might want to wait a little bit on that one until it’s safe, but I think you get the point.)

So much of retirement planning is wishful thinking. I was guilty of it, and I commit to being brutally honest about it in my writing so I don’t contribute to spreading that mindset to others. I encourage you to start building your best life today, even if you can’t retire yet.

You CAN change if you put in the work

Change is hard. That’s why it is important to be brutally honest about the stories you create to explain why you’re not already doing the things you say you want to do and know you should.

When I wrote about my first year of early retirement, I wrote about not volunteering or rock climbing more as I said I would when I had more time. But honestly, those are trivial compared to what I was thinking but was afraid to write. 

Throughout our careers, Kim and I had a good marriage. I wanted a great marriage. I used the busyness of work as an excuse for why we didn’t already have that. Things would be better when… That was my story.

In reality, financial independence and early retirement didn’t fix us. It almost broke us. Achieving our financial goals took away a unifying mission. It also eliminated our excuses.

After 2 1/2 years of ups and downs, we finally decided to get honest. And get help. We each stopped trying to change the others’ faults that were so blatantly obvious. Instead, we each learned to look inward, see our own faults, and change ourselves.

To be clear, it was beneficial to have the financial resources and time to do this brutally hard work at this stage in life. To be equally clear, it would have been much easier to do this without the 20 years of baggage we were carrying.

There’s an old Chinese proverb. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is right now. If there are changes you’ve been waiting to make, stop waiting. Get to work.

Be grateful for challenges

I’ve always had a practice of gratitude. Kim and I prioritize teaching that to our daughter. We regularly give thanks for family, our health, the beauty of nature and our good financial position.

If there is one overriding lesson I’ve learned this year, it is to be grateful for everything. All of it.

We are a community of planners. Translation: we’re control freaks. We try to optimize things. We create backup plans for our backup plans.

This year I’ve wasted a lot of time and energy being angry at things I can’t control. 

  • At a virus that took away my freedom to travel and spend time with people I love.
  • At a lack of leadership from our government and a lack of responsibility from fellow citizens.
  • At an earthquake that shook my house this March, adding anxiety and fear when we least needed it.
  • At a back injury that left me unable to do anything but lay on my stomach for weeks.
  • At a spouse who doesn’t share my exact values and outlook on life.

And all of my anger left me in the exact same place… and exhausted. 

In her book “Loving What Is,” Bryon Katie writes that there are only three types of business in the world; my business, your business and God’s business. This past year has taught me to live in my business and avoid spending time in the other two. They only lead to suffering. 

There are many uncertainties baked into retirement planning. Life is uncertain. We control freaks need to learn to not only accept, but be grateful for, those things we can’t control. 

You can disagree with me on this last lesson. Many of you will. Good luck with that!

Chris Mamula retired from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. This is an abridged version of his post “5 Lessons From 3 Years of Early Retirement” first published on the blog “Can I Retire Yet?

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