Time > Money (Part 1 – I retired early and so can you)

Shhhhh. I have a little secret. Can you promise not to tell?

About eight years ago, at around age 40, I cut back on work to under two hours a day. I realize that this may seem radical to many people but for the last 2-3 years I’ve come to feel that in my particular circumstances two hours a day is excessive. Starting from last year I’ve cut back to less than one hour a day. Actually, one hour a day is probably overly cautious and conservative – in all likelihood I would be fine if I completely retired.

At the outset I want to dispel the common misconception that early retirement is something only extremely wealthy people can do. I’ll discuss the easy peasy theory and practice of early retirement in a later post in this series but for now I’ll just note that anyone can retire early if they save and invest an appropriate portion of their income every year. In my own case, the ability to retire early has less to do with a particular income level and a lot to do with a modest lifestyle, the fact that I’m single and don’t have kids, and most importantly, that I’ve always saved and invested a large portion of my income.

At the beginning of this series about the balance between work and other life priorities, I should clarify what I mean by work. For the majority of adults, work of course means a regular job. In my particular case, my income comes from a combination of three sources (in descending order of importance): a graduate school admissions consulting business I own in Tokyo, rental property, and dividends from securities (stocks, bonds and REITs (real estate that has been securitized so you can buy it like a stock). In this context, “work” means activities whose primary purpose is the generation of income. These days I finish my day’s work before I eat breakfast in the morning. On most days it’s done before I finish my first cup of coffee (and after a trip to the bathroom coffee is priority one every morning).

Early in this mostly retired period of my life I remember a great deal of hesitation in talking about this, as if there was something shameful, even scandalous, about not working full time at such a young age. If you live abroad and travel a lot, it’s really common to be asked “what you do”. I never answered the question untruthfully, but for a long time I left the amount of work unstated, and with no quantification people I talked to probably assumed I worked full time, even if they understood that I work in a style that’s very different from most people.

Increasingly though I’ve come to feel that working less than 8-10 hours a day and early retirement are not something to be ashamed of. In fact, if valuable activities are chosen to replace the vast galaxy of discretionary time retirement opens up, it can be incredibly rewarding and also an expression of our deepest values.

I should be clear from the outset that this series is in no way an argument for idleness. While early retirement can be really cool, lying around on a beach all day with a cocktail in hand is super lame. For me at least, early retirement is not an effort to avoid work; I’ve loved almost everything I’ve done for a living. Rather, it’s a recognition that there are even more rewarding things I can spend my time on now, and mostly retiring opens up vast amounts of time to pursue those higher priority goals. I’ll discuss the how and why of early retirement (which of course can be done partially) in later posts in this series.

On first dates, I’ve often found myself face to face with the way that early retirement can be both desirable and transgressive. And my new, more open stance about mostly retiring is one major litmus test of compatibility. On one hand, there are women who say something like, “Wow! That’s cool. I wish I could do that.” To the “Cool!” ladies my response is, “Actually, almost anyone can retire early, including you. If you spend significantly less than you make and invest the difference over a number of years, you can retire earlier.”

In contrast to the “Wow! That’s cool” crowd, another group of women, perhaps roughly equal in size seems to find early retirement a bit scandalous and difficult to understand. Let’s call them the “Dude! You’re a slacker!” crowd. While the details of their response varies, I think the underlying assumption here is that men should be ambitious, that they should struggle and strive, especially one that they are evaluating as a candidate to father their children.

I completely agree that ambition is desirable and I consider myself ambitious, but I don’t think of ambition as a narrow focus on only professional advancement and wealth. To me, ambition is a continuous effort to grow and develop in a variety of important areas (professionally, socially, spiritually, personal growth and development etc.). And while material means are one important part of a good life, I’m just saying that’s not the part I really need to be prioritizing now. 

To the “Slacker!” crowd, I typically reply something like, “I’m satisfied with my income and increasing it is not a priority at this point in my life. I keep quite busy but I’m focussing on other areas of my life now.” My Buddha, from the shocked reaction I often get to “I’m satisfied with my income” you would think that I confessed to swindling grannies or stealing children’s lunch money! It’s really worth asking though why it’s so radical to be satisfied with our material circumstances. I think that excessive desire for more and more money is a major source of unhappiness and problems in the larger world (and this is an affliction that strikes people at every level of income, from abject poverty to extreme wealth).

I want to emphasize that I’m not at all anti-money or anti-wealth. All things being equal, it’s of course better to have more of it rather than less. I do think it’s unfortunate though when people sacrifice even more important things (physical and mental health, relationships etc.) in pursuit of it. What I’m advocating, and aiming for myself, is a healthy relationship to money, a sweet spot between enough material comfort and enough time to pursue important priorities that would be impossible with a single-minded focus on professional advancement and wealth.

One member of the “Slacker!” group, a successful Vietnamese businesswoman, was especially persistent, and kept up the cross-examination longer than most. If I can live comfortably working one hour a day, she asked, why wouldn’t I work full time and live absolutely lavishly. Answer: Excuse me, but didn’t you say you are Buddhist? I think the Buddha was really onto something when he pointed out that an excess of desire and a deficit of values are major sources of unhappiness inside the human mind and of woe in the wider world. Plus, if you make your happiness dependent primarily on wealth you will never be satisfied. Once you have oodles of money, you’ll find yourself wanting oodles and oodles. By the way, neuroscientists have rigorously documented this phenomenon, which they call hedonic adaptation – after a happy (or unhappy) event our minds adapt and after a short time we return to the same baseline level of happiness.

My reply didn’t satisfy her, and like a Vietnamese Lady Macbeth, she continued to prod me ever upward on the path that, just an hour into our first date, she had already chosen for me. Next she proposed specific income generating activities that I should pursue. I should launch my Japan business in Vietnam, she said. (Answer: If more income were my priority at this point, and I’ve made clear that it’s not, I’d launch that business in China, which is a vastly larger and more lucrative market than Vietnam, and also has a more stable government.) 

Next, she told me I should buy condominiums in Saigon and rent them out. (Answer: Steve Jobs gave a really cool talk at Stanford’s graduation a while back. Check it out on YouTube. You and I and everyone walking the earth has a limited amount of time here. Making more money is not what I need to be spending my own limited time on now. But even if it were, investing money in real estate in a country with high levels of government corruption and very limited ownership rights for foreigners would be very low on my list of income generating options.) Early in my own lifetime, Vietnam’s nascent communist government seized the land and assets of private property owners. In America I’m a hard core liberal. In Vietnam I’m what? The reactionary property-owning class?

This woman was particularly relentless in her assault on my early retirement position, and just wouldn’t give up. (To what end? I’d decided minutes into the first date that a relationship with her wasn’t going to happen.) Usually I enjoy this sort of playful jousting and after I explain my motivation for early retirement – not an avoidance of work but an embrace of even more important priorities – it’s not uncommon for a member of the “Slacker!” crowd to change their vote to “Cool!”. This woman was particularly unrelenting though and at a certain point I stopped enjoying it, and started plotting my escape. Like a fighter pilot who ejects from his wounded, flaming jet as it spirals downward toward its doom, I called an Uber and made my exit from the date as politely as I could.

Part 2 in this series on time and money is here

Note on this series:  Is it just me, or does anyone else hate the way Quentin Tarantino’s  Kill Bill was split up into two parts so the studio could make more money from what was more naturally told as a stand-alone story? Making money from this blog is not in my short, medium or long-term plans but from time to time I split topics into several posts for a couple other reasons. First, I try to write at least three posts a month, so one roughly every 10 days on average. With big, important topics though I don’t feel that I can deal with them fully in the time I have to spend on one post. Also, my feeling is that some of the stand alone posts are long as it is and I don’t think it’s a good idea to make them even longer. Breaking the large topics up into parts is a way to get around these problems. With this issue of life values and time vs. money my interest is so vast that I can’t really say how many parts there will be. To keep both myself and readers interested I probably won’t do posts in this series consecutively though. From time to time I’ll do a new post on this topic and include links to the previous posts in the series for readers who are interested in (re)reading them. 

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Here are links to the final three parts of this series: part 2, part 3, part 4.

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