Ignorance about retiring early

It’s been eleven years since I retired, at age forty-eight.

I hesitated at first to call it “retiring early,” even though in my head that’s exactly what I was doing. Partially that was because I hadn’t decided to take the plunge. I had been intending to retire early, doing the planning, doing the saving. But part of a proper early retirement is deciding that you’re ready, based on having established an income stream that covers your expenses.

I hadn’t done that. What I did was learn that my employer was closing down the site where I worked, and then wing it. I counted my money; I did some figuring. I secretly figured that I could retire, but I didn’t tell people that. What I told people was that, “Although I couldn’t retire, I had reached the point where I didn’t need to work a regular job any more.”

I’d meant to celebrate the 10-year anniversary with a post about how things had gone, but haven’t gotten around to it. And I guess this isn’t going to be that post either, because I’ve gotten so annoyed by an ignorant article  by Jared Dillian in Bloomberg Opinion, The ‘Radical Saving’ Trend Is Based on Fantasy—which manages to both be wrong about the facts, and (more fundamentally) miss the whole point—that I’m compelled to write a response.

Dillian’s item number one manages to be both wrong on the facts and miss the point in roughly equal measure:

Most people save now because they want to consume later. But the FIRE folks don’t want people to consume. For the FIRE folks, the point of saving is simply not to have to work. To give you the freedom to do whatever you desire over the last 50 years of your life. Trouble is, the freedom to do anything you want isn’t much fun when you’re hemmed in by a microscopic budget.

First of all, the “financial independence/retire early” (FIRE) folks do want to consume. It’s just that they’ve figured out that, at some point, just consuming more doesn’t make your life better. Rather, they’ve thought deeply about what they need to consume to make themselves happy, they consume that, and then they stop consuming.

I think of it as drawing a line under the stuff that’s worth paying up to get all I want of exactly what I want, and then paying zero for the things that don’t make the cut. (Most people don’t do this. Instead of a cutoff they have a gradual trickle off, spending smaller and smaller amounts as they work their way down the list of things they want. This is no way to be happy. The money they’re spending on stuff they only kinda want eats into the money they could be spending on the stuff they really, really want.)

Second, the whole point of FIRE is not to “simply not have to work.” Rather, the point is to free yourself to do whatever work you want, instead of whatever work pays best. Everybody I know who’s retired early still works at something.

This point is made very clearly by literally everybody I know of who has written about FIRE. To miss it suggests either that Jared Dillian was very careless indeed in doing his research, or that he is willfully missing the point.

Third, it’s simply false to say that “the freedom to do anything you want isn’t much fun when you’re hemmed in by a microscopic budget.” Rather, the freedom to do anything you want enables you to do the most important thing you can think of.

Maybe the most important thing you can think of is really expensive (in which case you’d have saved a lot of money to fund your retirement). But very likely the most important thing you can think of is free, or cheap, or even modestly remunerative. (The list is endless—crafting musical instruments, researching obscure topics in your field you didn’t have time for while working full time, helping care for a family member, documenting the history of your ethnic group, researching the natural history of your region, working for a candidate or a political party or a non-profit that’s trying to stop global warming or child trafficking or hunger or poverty…)

Finally, who says your budget has to be microscopic? Rather, your budget should fund your planned expenses. If the most important thing you can think of is to take a round-the-world cruise every year, you’ll want to save more money than someone whose most important work is to study the local mosses.

I’m going to skip over his second item, because he just makes the same mistake again, imagining a purpose of being able to “consume more later” is a better justification for saving than being able to live exactly the life you want to live and do your most important work.

His third item manages both to make the same mistake yet again, and to insult everybody who understands the difference between the most important work you could do and the work that pays the most:

What is wrong with working? Why do the FIRE people dislike working so much that they want to quit at age 35? Working gives people purpose… I have had unpleasant jobs, and even working an unpleasant job is preferable to not working at all. I am one of these people who thinks there is dignity in working, that every job is important no matter how small.

(I left out a random swipe against basic income.)

I don’t know any FIRE people who dislike working. I know a lot of FIRE people who dislike working at regular jobs. I know a lot of FIRE people who dislike working for psycho bosses, bosses who take inappropriate advantage of them, and stupid bosses who don’t know how to do their job well. I know a lot of FIRE people who think there is great dignity in choosing to do whatever they think their most important work is, regardless of whether it pays enough to live on.

I’ve worked at bad jobs now and then. Not unpleasant jobs, which are okay as long as the work is worth doing. But some jobs are not worth doing.

One example: a manager one place I used to work put huge pressure on employees to finish a task, despite knowing that the project the task was for had been canceled —because completing the project on-time was required for the manager to get a big bonus. That is work that was not worth doing. (Literally. It produced nothing of value to the company, while keeping the employees from doing something that would be valuable.) That sort of situation, which is more common that you might think, is what FIRE people are trying to escape.

Finally, Dillian suggests:

The biggest issue with the FIRE movement is that it’s the ultimate bull market phenomenon. FIRE seems to work because the stock market has gone straight up. A bear market will change that. Even if stocks do return 8 percent to 12 percent over time, it’s not going to be any fun living on a shoestring budget and watching your nest egg decline in value by 30 percent to 50 percent.

Here I have actual first-hand experience. My early retirement started in the summer of 2007, and pretty much right after that came the financial crisis in which my stock portfolio lost about 40% of its value.

I engaged in some pretty dark humor during those first two years, joking about how I wouldn’t want to be retiring early in that kind of market.

In fact, I was just fine. I did the obvious things: I found a way to earn a little money (in my case by writing, which was what I wanted to do anyway), and I got a little extra frugal (on a temporary basis, to preserve my capital).

So, yes, I did live on a “shoestring budget” for a few years while watching my nest egg decline—although not by as much as 30%, even though the stock portion lost 40%, because the bond portion soared and the cash portion remained stable (although the income it produced declined).

Contrary to Dillian’s concerns, it was actually great fun. I was writing full time—fiction in the mornings and articles about personal finance and frugality for Wise Bread in the afternoons—which was exactly what I wanted to do. We didn’t travel much, and we didn’t buy much in the way of new clothes, but we were very happy.

Since then my portfolio has more than recovered. Part of that was just the bull market. Part of it was basic portfolio re-balancing, which automatically had me sell bonds near the peak and buy stocks near the bottom.

After all, the 4% rule (which I assume is what Dillian is implicitly rejecting) was never a law of nature. It’s always been just an empirical guideline. The FIRE people all understand that you can’t just “set and forget” your spending. Instead you need to pay attention, and adjust as needed. Maybe you need to spend less. Maybe you need to find a way to earn a little money. I did both those things, although not very much of either one.

For eleven years now I’ve spent every day doing exactly what I chose to do.

What I chose to do has varied, of course. At first it was all writing. When I realized that I wasn’t taking full advantage of not needing to be at my desk during working hours, I rearranged my schedule so I could spend more of the daylight hours engaged in outdoor exercise. I took a taiji class, discovered that I really enjoyed the practice, and persisted with it. Now I teach taiji, and it has become one of those modestly remunerative things I was talking about.

But for eleven years, it’s always been whatever I most wanted to do.

A simple daily routine, with writing

I visited my dad in Kalamazoo last week, and managed to establish a bit of a routine for both of us:

  1. I’d get up around 6:00 AM and spend some time on-line, checking my feeds and email, and doing the Jumble with my brother and my mom (and anyone else in his household who was available).
  2. My dad would get up around 7:00 AM and we’d each fix our breakfasts and eat them.
  3. Around 8:00 AM we’d each settle down to do a couple of hours of writing.
  4. Around 10:00 AM we’d stop for a coffee break.
  5. After coffee we’d go to a natural area and walk until we got tired or hungry, at which point we’d break for lunch.
  6. After lunch we’d put some time in on our assigned non-writing task for the week (getting as much as possible of my dad’s old papers and junk gathered and sorted for shredding, recycling, or taking to the dump).

That was the end of the productive part of the day. After that was cocktail hour followed by dinner, typically followed by streaming a Cardinal’s game.

It was a pretty satisfying schedule—productive, but with plenty of time to be social, both with my dad in person and with my other relatives on-line, and plenty of time to be outdoors in nature. (My dad has been keeping up on the latest research on how being in nature is good for your mood, as well as many other aspects of your health.)

Because it was so satisfactory, I’m going to try to maintain a version of this schedule going forward. One complication is that Jackie’s work schedule has her breakfasting very early on days that she needs to be at the bakery early, but not necessarily that early on other days. Still, that’s just a detail that can be worked around.

The picture at the top shows a buttonwood plant that my dad and I saw while walking in the fen at the Lillian Anderson Arboretum near where my dad lives in Kalamazoo.

Writing in 2017

I’m a little happier about my writing this year than I’ve been in the last several years. I finished two new short stories, both of which have been sent to markets. That feels a lot better. It also leaves me feel like I’m ready to write some more—I have several bits and pieces already in progress.

In non-fiction news, writing for Wise Bread ran along about as it has in recent years, with six articles published (and one more that I’ve submitted, but that hasn’t appeared yet). Posts that appeared in 2017 are:

I’m pretty pleased with all of these, especially the mediocre investment advice series. Once again, none of them is a listicle (although the editors did give one of them a listiclish title).

My plans for next year are more of the same. I hope to maintain some momentum in getting stories out to editors and working on new stories. I’d even like to get back to my nearly finished novel. (Or else definitely give up on it and start on a new one.) And I’ll carry on with Wise Bread stories.

Happy New Year!

Applications open for Clarion 2018

I have written a lot about Clarion, the science fiction and fantasy writing workshop I took back in 2001—in particular my Clarion journal and my six-post series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion.

If you want to go to Clarion—and if you’re an aspiring sf&f writer, I highly recommend it—you’ll be glad to hear that the application period has just opened.

It was one of the most useful things I’ve done to improve my craft. It was also a lot of fun.

It is only modestly expensive in terms of cost, and there are scholarships to help those who in need. It is mostly expensive in terms of time: six weeks. That’s a long time to absent yourself from your job or your family, but Clarion makes very good use of all that time—every minute is well spent.

If you apply, or if you go, I’d be pleased to hear from you.

Busy writing

Because it was so precisely in my wheelhouse, I simply had to submit a story for the Universal Basic Income short story contest Into the Black.

I plugged away at a story most of October. In particular, I worked on it three different times with Elizabeth Shack’s Thursday writing group. And I got a story nearly finished, except it refused to turn into a basic income story.

Finally, about three days ago I gave up trying to twist that story into a basic income story and sat down to write another—even though I only had four or five days until the submission deadline.

It reminded me of Clarion in a way—sitting down at my computer, determined to get a story done in less than a week. At Clarion the motivation was simply that if you didn’t get a story done each week you’d miss out on the chance to get a story critiqued by that week’s instructor, but it was enough. And this made for a similarly strong motivation.

And I’m pleased to report success: I finished a draft on Saturday. On Sunday I read through it and made minor edits and gave it to a couple of first readers. Today I made another pass through it, making changes suggested by my reader’s comments, and then submitted it to the contest.

That was all fun and good, but there is yet more good.

First, the story that would not be a basic income story is nevertheless a perfectly good story. I’ll let it sit for a bit, then go through and remove the failed attempts to twist it into one, and then take a go at finishing it on its own terms. I’m hopeful.

Second, there’s also a fragment of that story that I pulled out and stashed that might well turn into another story. It was part of one effort to twist the story, but it’s really a pretty good idea in its own right, and might make for a whole story all on its own.

So I come out of this with one finished story, one mostly-written story, and a few fragments of a possible third story. Go me!

I am also reminded that I have a couple of finished, critiqued stories that only need a rewrite pass to be ready to submit to markets, which I have been woefully lax about submitting. (My Clarion instructors would be appalled.)

So, with a little luck, in a matter of days I might well have five stories out to markets. Well, not luck exactly: Diligence and persistence are what’s called for.

Thursday writing group

Local sf writer Elizabeth Shack has been doing the work of organising a few writers to meet Thursday evenings at a local coffee shop. It’s not a critique group; it’s a writing group. There’s a few minutes of conversation and sharing of news, but the main point of the event is to do the usually solitary writing in a slightly less solitary environment.

I’ve been twice now. (I’ll be going again this evening.) I’ve been highly productive both times so far.

I think Elizabeth would be pleased to have the group who shows up expand. (This sort of thing works better when there are enough regulars that when one or another person has to miss a day there’s still a group.) She’s got a contact form on her web site, if you’re a local writer and want to express an interest in joining us.

Short story contest I can’t skip

Even though I have several other things going on, it’s indisputable that I’m going to have to write something for this short story contest. I simply can’t imagine a theme that hits more squarely in the sweet spot of what I’m interested in: Into the Black.

In 5,000 words or less, we want you to explore the impacts of a basic income on individual lives and on society at large.

If it’s your sort of thing, you should probably write a story too. Pay is good, even if don’t win the grand prize ($12,000 paid as $1,000 a month for a year).

On Oliver Sacks

On Oliver Sacks: his writing process, how he used notebooks, and his views on creativity. Via Field Notes.

Where making is driven by association and memory, birthing “needs ‘incubation’” and is marked by intuition. But before we hasten to assume that he valued the latter type of creative work more highly than the former, he lists Darwin as an example of a writer who makes and Rilke as one who births, which strongly suggests that he saw the two not as a hierarchy but as distinct, complementary forms of creative work — Darwin was, after all, one of Dr. Sacks’s great heroes.

Source: Inside Oliver Sacks’s Creative Process: The Beloved Writer’s Never-Before-Seen Manuscripts, Brainstorm Sheets, and Notes on Writing, Creativity, and the Brain

Writing and moving

I still struggle with the tension between time spent moving and time spent writing, even as I come to recognize that the tension may not even exist. So I love this post by Katy Bowman, on being A Writer Who Moves, A Mover Who Writes.

Culturally, we still hold the belief that the relationship between time and productivity is direct. As if writing consists solely of the output of words, your typing speed being the indicator of how long it would take to write a thousand-word word article (ten minutes) or a novel (one week). But of course, time spent coming up with ideas and themes, and organizing and reorganizing these threads in our minds, is also “writing.” The trouble is, we’ve come to see sitting at a desk as an integral part of the writing process. We imagine the mulling, the idea-forming, the organizing, the process—the creativity—can occur only when the butt–chair circuit is closed. I (and researchers) have found the opposite to be true: movement can be a conduit for creativity.

Today I will live this truth: I will move and I will write.