The United States Early Retirement Conspiracy

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer, Traveller

You’re so lucky. I wish I could do what you’re doing. Is there a conspiracy in the United States against early retirement? I’m beginning to think so. With its rampant consumerism it is very difficult to retire at a reasonable age in the United States. What is a reasonable age anyway? As ageing Baby Boomers (born in the years after World War II 1946 to 1964) reach critical mass these questions become increasingly relevant. I’ve answered these questions for myself but have you (or even considered them)?

Baby boomers are the demographic group born during the post-World War II baby boom, approximately between the years 1946 and 1964. This includes people who are between 52 and 70 years old in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

First lets talk about luck. In the words of Roman philosopher Seneca: we make our own luck. Sometimes we’re forced into it and at other times we appear to have more control. The older I get, however, the less I’m inclined to believe we really have control over anything in life. I’ve come to realize that what we normally think of as control is simply illusion (or delusion) and ephemeral at best. The point I’m trying to make here is that my decision to retire and follow my dreams was a conscious decision and not simply luck.

Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity. This quote, attributed to Roman philosopher Seneca, reminds us that we make our own luck. The difference between lucky and unlucky people, we’ve seen before, is all in our perspective.

For me it was a combination of being forced towards a decision and acceptance of that decision. My thirty-year career as a banking professional (Vice President/Branch Manager with JPMorgan Chase) was faltering, my health was failing and my marriage was on the rocks (and had been for a long time). I was sixty-four years old. Saddled with all that and bone crushing debt I was absolutely miserable with my lot in life. I’ve written about this many times on this blog but for my newer readers this was my life in nutshell. This should help you put you’re so lucky into its proper context.

The top one percent: they have [a] median annual household income of $750,000, median assets of $7.5 million, and there are 1.2 million of them across the country.

Unless you’re a one-percenter you will probably have to give something up to gain your freedom from harness. In my case I gave up almost everything: my marriage, my career, my savings, my house and even my car. In doing that, however, I gained almost total freedom. I do not regret my decision and its been five years. I am location-independent which is an euphemism for being technically homeless but the world is now my home and every person I meet is a potential friend. A bed, a shower and a toilet is all I really need. You’re so lucky. Can you live like that?

When I gave up my old life I could either quit and give up or I could reinvent myself and move on. I chose the latter. I now live simple, I now live cheap, I now live free. Simple, cheap and free is my mantra. You cannot live simple, cheap and free if you’re tied to American consumerism. It’s just not possible. Consumer debt is your prison—if you have significant debt then you have to continue working to service that debt (with no real chance of ever paying it off). If you have to work then obviously you cannot retire. This is where my conspiracy notion comes into play.

The media quite recently has begun to counsel baby boomers not to retire too early. I find this both interesting and suspicious. A number of things might happen if boomers start to retire en mass: the workforce will likely start to shrink and I’m not convinced that succeeding generations can adequately fill the void with the necessary expertise or reliability; to shed prohibitive debt bankruptcies and foreclosures will increase (bankruptcy laws are already changing in favor of big business); today’s rampant consumerism will abruptly come to an end as people cope to live within their means.

America doesn’t make anything anymore. Our economic model is based on consumerism: we must spend ourselves out of recession (depression) is the message our government aka big business is promoting. This model will not pass critical scrutiny, if the majority of retirement age Americans suddenly and dramatically sheds its consumer debt and quits the workforce the entire economy will collapse almost overnight. It’s going to happen anyway but talking people out of early retirement is their way of kicking the can farther down the road. The new (official) advice is: work until you’re at least 70.

I could be wrong about all of this—but I’m not. It will come to pass, trust me. Should you wait to retire? Only you can answer that question. You’re so lucky. I wish I could do what you’re doing. You can but not without pain and sacrifice. You will not gain anything in life without first giving something up. If you are not willing to make that sacrifice, and you’re not a one-percenter, you will continue to work into your old age. It’s a rigged game folks and it always has been—it’s up to you to decide if you’re going to continue playing by the rules.

No one really knows how many American retirees live abroad. Most estimates say the percentage is very small. The truth is most Americans don’t want to live abroad. Often that’s based on unreasonable fear, unrealistic expectations and an inbred American intolerance of change. The axiom among expats is: the breaking point comes at about the three-year mark and that’s what I’ve seen myself. By that time you pretty much know if it’s the life for you or not and for many it’s not.

So any advice from this expat five years into his journey? A few things come to mind:

  1. Start thinking about your situation sooner rather than later. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.
  2. Get rid of your consumer debt (especially revolving debt) as soon as possible.
  3. Start paying cash for everything.
  4. Live well within your means instead of beyond your means.
  5. Be willing to make sacrifices in order to gain (especially freedom).
  6. If full-time travel interests you start early and experiment (become increasingly self-directed and less all-inclusive).
  7. Develop your hobbies and interests and alternative ways of earning money (in my case it’s photography and writing).
  8. Are you married or in a longterm serious relationship? It makes a difference. Retirement breaks up a lot of marriages and relationships. It’s hard for two people to be on the same page at the same time.
  9. Try to be pragmatic because fantasy can get you into trouble. It’s fun to fantasize about winning the lottery or quitting your job but the reality is something entirely different.
  10. It’s easier to maintain a good to great standard of living (as a retiree) outside of the USA but it’s not for everyone. Try it first before cutting all of your ties with the mother country. Remember, three years seems to be the magic number.

If you have any specific questions I’m always willing to answer them to the best of my ability. I am not an expert but I know what works for me. I love my new life but I’ve met a lot of expats who don’t and have returned home disappointed. I love the freedom and excitement of full-time travel. The freedom to spend my time my way. After almost fifty years in military, corporate and domestic harness this new freedom is intoxicating. I take my pictures, I write my articles and I travel the world. Perfect for me and maybe even for you. Visit me at my official website at Indochine Photography at www.IndochinePhotography.me if you’re so inclined.

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