A few days ago I saw an article about people who had retired early, with a few details about each person’s situation. The retirement age of the people profiled in the article ranged from 33 (Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme – who isn’t actually retired anymore) to 52, and most of them have been retired for several years. If you’ve ever read blogs written by people who have retired early or are working towards that goal (or any other sort of financial independence goal), there was nothing particularly new or exciting in the article. For me, the most interesting part of it was the comment section (yes, I should know better than to ever scroll through the comments on news stories, but I couldn’t help it). I only looked at the first couple pages of comments. Although there were a few supportive comments, I saw a lot more that were critical and/or said something along the lines of “well, good for them but that would never work for me because I have… (kids to put through college, student loans, health insurance premiums, barely any money to put towards retirement each month, etc.)”
If you’ve spent any sort of time in the frugal blog world (and especially if you’ve paid attention to blogs devoted to early financial independence), you’ve seen lots of similar comments. They always strike me as odd.
First, everybody’s situation is different. I think that should be understood as a given. Nobody is going to be able to exactly duplicate someone else’s life (nor should they want to!) We all have different backgrounds, different responsibilities, different earning potentials, and different hopes and dreams. A person who wants to travel the world would be ill advised to emulate the life of someone who wants to devote their time to a self-sufficient farm (definitely an exciting adventure, but one that requires a person to pretty much stay in one place).
So now that we have that out of the way, I’m perplexed by the comments that people make about how they could never retire early (or achieve financial independence) because their own situation is different. Maybe the person being profiled had no children and you have three. Yes, that’s a different situation for sure. But it’s important to remember that we all have – or had – the option of not having children. Most of us eventually choose to have children (and once we do, we can’t imagine our lives without them). But it always strikes me as odd when people who have made the choice to have children make negative comments that sound like they resent people who have no children and have retired early.
Most of the other arguments that people make for why they could never possibly achieve early financial independence (I use that term because “early retirement” generates so much controversy with people who nitpick every aspect of whether the person is still bringing in any cash at all from sources like a blog or a rental property, and therefore doesn’t qualify as “retired”) are similarly negative and perplexing. Yes, of course we all have different income levels and different opportunities. Some people inherit money. Some people have awful health problems that cause them to lose their job and with it, their health insurance. Some people have parents who pay for their college education, some work full time throughout college to pay for school, and some end up with boatloads of student loans.
Life isn’t fair. We know that. Things are not equitably divided. Some people get ahead with more luck than effort, and others fall behind despite large amounts of effort.
But the more we focus on the negatives and the reasons why “I can’t…”, the harder it will be for us to see the path that leads to “I can…”
Some people don’t like the idea of early retirement. They might want to work forever, especially if they love theirjob. But I think most of us like the idea of at least some degree of financial independence (another reason I prefer that terminology). I would guess that most of the people who leave negative comments on articles about early retirement/financial independence also like the idea of being financially independent. But rather than focusing on what they can do in order to make that happen, they focus on the reasons they can’t make it happen. So they don’t make any changes, and their financial life stays pretty much the same – and definitely not on track towards financial independence.
Here’s the thing about financial independence. Assuming you don’t inherit a bucket of money or win the lottery, nobody is saying that it’s easy to achieve. There’s no magic bullet or secret weapon that will make it happen overnight. You have to spend less than you earn (and depending on the loftiness of your goals, maybe a lot less) for a long time. Unless your income is very high, you’ll probably have to have plenty of frugal habits. For some people, that involves a lot of changes. And for a lot of people, change can be scary (even if it’s exciting and putting you on the path towards something you want). Things that are scary tend to make us feel defensive. And I think that explains a lot of the negativity and defensiveness that we see in the comments sections of articles and blogs about early retirement and people who have achieved financial independence.
On the flip side, there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to pursue that sort of lifestyle. If you’d rather spend most of what you earn, go for it (I don’t condone spending more than you earn, because that’s a recipe for bad things no matter how you look at it). But if you’d like to achieve some level of financial independence, the first step is to focus on the things you can control and the steps you can take to make it happen. If you dwell on the fact that it would be so much easier if you earned $80,000 a year instead of $40,000, you might find yourself so mired in negativity that you never start making steps in the right direction. If you focus on the fact that you have kids to put through college and thus have no realistic way to retire early, you might miss out on all of the opportunities for your kids to apply for scholarships, save their babysitting money during high school, spend the first two years at the local community college before transferring to a four year university, or apply for work-study programs during college (just examples off the top of my head – there are tons of ways to avoid crippling student loan debt. But again, nobody said it’s easy).
I would love to see a little less negativity in the comments section on articles about early retirement, frugality, and financial independence. We can all agree that none of those things are particularly easy. But that’s ok. Most things that are worthwhile aren’t easy. Making significant changes can be particularly hard. But focusing on the reasons why a certain change was easier for someone else or why it would never work in your situation is definitely not a productive habit.
So let’s make a commitment to focus on productive habits. To think about on the ways we can rather than the reasons we can’t. To be optimistic rather than pessimistic. To be happy for the good fortune of others instead of feeling jealous or bitter. We might not reach all of our goals, but we’ll be a lot happier along the way.