When I was younger, I was always thoroughly confused by the phrase “retirement age.” I wondered why that would be set in some way, seemingly by law, rather than varying from person to person. It’s clearly possible to live on a low income like $20,000 per year, so if you earn more than that why can’t you just keep the extra and use it to stop working at a younger age? What was the significance of 55, 60, 62, 70, or whatever seemingly arbitrary retirement age?
Is there really a set retirement age?
It blew my mind then that everyone I knew seemed to think retirement age was a concrete, far-off thing. But I forgot about it for a few years in exchange for occupying myself with football, calculus, and Starcraft (which helped me learn to invest!). Then, some time in high school, I started to learn about inflation, real estate taxes, and medical expenses, and I guess I just assumed “Oh, looks like the experts already thought about this, and it’s just not possible without making a ton of money. Proceed with normal life.”
Then I discovered MMM. Or, rather, my brother and sister in law gently directed me to this mysterious cult-like blog after I got my first law job, for a reason I can’t yet determine but which I assume must be rooted in some form of what people call “love.”
After a moment of confusion about what this guy’s religion had to do with me, my law school debt, and my average garbage man salary, I was drawn in by the humor and the reminder of my childhood questions. I read half the blog within a few days, and realized I found an entire community who asked the same question that young Vigilante asked!1
And they all had the same answer I intuitively expected, but could never prove:
It’s up to you to determine your retirement age!
You don’t have to wait for a pension, for Social Security, for your kids or grandkids to take you in, or for charity from strangers to release you from the bonds of constant labor. You don’t need to hit the lottery, inherit millions, or invent the next Uber, solar roof, or Angry Birds.
All you have to do is spend less than you earn. That’s it. Just like a child would guess.
What you do with the excess is important, but not nearly as important as that basic truth: If you spend less than you earn, you will build wealth. If you spend more than you earn, you’ll find yourself in debt. If you spend what you earn, you’ll spin your wheels and go nowhere. Trust me, I’ve been there.
I spent a long time2 underemployed after law school. Working for a bit over minimum wage in a job that required precisely none of the education I had paid so much for. I lived with my parents and had no savings, no social activity, and no light at the end of the tunnel at 26 years old. Eventually, I was offered a low-wage judicial clerkship across the state with a fantastic judge, and now a short, fun-filled three-ish years later I’m married, own a home, and am celebrating the newfound knowledge that if Mrs. Vigilante and I continue to save only exactly the amount we’re saving this year, we will confidently be able to retire by 40! (And frankly, saving only the same amount would be incredibly disappointing, since our incomes are both rising and we’re always finding new ways to save!)
In other words, you’re looking at someone who may be going from effectively home/job-less at 26 to retired millionaire in about 10 years, without any inheritance, debt forgiveness, or lottery winnings. It’s like Slumdog Millionaire, except instead of shitting into a hole in the ground, I just used a no-name sliding phone instead of an iPhone. All because I know my time is valuable and my retirement age can’t be set by someone else. And because I married wisely.
If you think you can have more fun in your 30s or 40s than in your 60s or 70s; if you value your limited time on earth and don’t want to spend the majority of it in a cubicle or a coal mine; if you want to be a parent and don’t want to miss rehearsals, big games, and first steps; you can make the choice to retire early.
I’ve customized my retirement age. Will you?
- I soon thereafter discovered RootofGood. I found a soul mate. I thought MMM was the one, but I was wrong again. And then came my downward spiral into everything FIRE when I realized there was a subreddit, decided to start my own blog, and joined the Rockstar finance forums as soon as they were launched. Highly recommend taking that spiral!
- Around 9-10 months after the bar exam. And, of course, I was intentionally unemployed for most of my time studying for the bar.