Commitment Phobia and Early Retirement as an Escape from Responsibilities

We are well into 2020 now. It is a new year and a new decade. Something that has been on my mind a lot is early retirement. Do I really want to retire early? Once you start earning more, it becomes harder to give up the salary. That being said, work has been hard lately, and whenever work gets hard, I begin to think about early retirement. 

Something that happened in 2019 was that I was in a brief relationship for about three months, but that ended. It was nice while it lasted but it definitely is over, which is a pity because I do want a girlfriend, but I think I do have a severe case of commitment phobia. I am fairly certain I don’t want children, and I could go on forever about the reasons for that, but I am also worried about marriage, which to me seems very risky. I have also witnessed many bad marriages. Many people say that conflict and argument are a normal part of marriage and you need to just work through it, but this seems to be an unsatisfactory answer. For 2020 and beyond, my plan for relationships is the same as always, which is to stay single but be open to meeting new women. 

At this point in time, I am probably as lonely as ever. I don’t think I have any friends. I don’t have a girlfriend either. I pretty much have nothing. Most of my interaction with people is work-related and there are a few people I catch up with every now and then. This is a bit depressing, but at the same time, I do like the solitude. I also like the freedom that comes from just being by myself. It is not like I am completely alone. People do contact me to have lunch or coffee with them, and sometimes I contact others to catch up with them, but mostly these catch ups are not that great. Whenever I catch up with others, I feel like I am just engaging in polite conversation. I cannot really express who I am or what I am thinking. Maybe I haven’t fully built up the courage to say what I want to say.

When I started my financial independence journey, my plan was to retire early in Southeast Asia, and I still want to do this. Whenever times are tough, I’d imagine myself living on a beach on an island in Southeast Asia. I’d sleep in a beach bungalow, wake up late, walk along the sands to a beachside cafe or coworking space, and spend my days reading books or writing books on a laptop, which I would self-publish on Kindle. I’d drink coffee and coconut by the beach while I read or write books. In the afternoon, when the sun sets on the horizon, I could go for a swim, and the water would be very warm.

Part of the reason why I’m hesitant to have children or to marry is because of the threat that children or marriage pose to my early retirement dream. There is something about children or marriage that seems so final. The commitment is so large, and it is a heavy burden. 

When you live differently, people naturally challenge you, and when I tell people about my dreams to retire to Southeast Asia, they inevitably talk about how terrible these places are, how they have poor healthcare, how the traffic is bad, and so forth. All these points miss the bigger picture, which is that the reason why I want to go to Southeast Asia is not beause I necessarily want to go to Southeast Asia but rather it is because I want to have the ability to go somewhere else. Even if I don’t like Southeast Asia, I could always move back or move elsewhere. It is the movement and the flexibility that matters. I want to have no major obligations and I want to be completely free. I don’t want to be shackled to a job I initally liked but have grown to hate as I try to pay off a huge mortgage and car loan. There seems to be a tendency for people to push you to decide on something, commit to it, and then settle down, but I want to keep my options open. I never want to commit and I never want to settle.

How Much Passive Income Do You Need?

Most people I speak to, when they want to measure someone’s wealth, measure wealth by referring to how many houses they have. For example, “John owns 14 houses. He is rich.” However, someone may own 14 houses, but each house may only be worth $200k, which gives total assets of $2.8 million. However, what if he also had $2.7 million worth of debt? His net worth would be $100k whereas someone who owns one house worth $1 million that is fully paid off would be 10 times wealthier even though he owns 14 times fewer houses. This example clearly demonstrates how misleading a count of houses is. A more sensible approach is to calculate net worth.

However, net worth can be misleading as well. For example, suppose you inherited a house from your parents that was worth $500k and you live in this house. Suppose suddenly this house went up in value to $1 million. Are you better off? Your net worth has increased by $500k, but because the extra wealth is within the house, you cannot unlock it unless you sell the house. If you sell the house, you’d still need a place to live, so you’d buy another place. The problem is that if you buy another place, that home will have risen in value as well, so the net effect is that you have paid taxes, real estate agent fees, conveyancing fees, etc but there is no difference in your living standards. You are worse off. If you downsize and buy a cheaper place, you’d be able to unlock your extra wealth, but then your living standards drop (e.g. extra commute time).

This point highlights that net worth, although better than a count of houses, has its flaws. An alternative metric, in my opinion, is passive income. Passive income (e.g. from dividend income but also from rent, interest, etc) is income you receive by not working. Passive income should subtract any debt as debt is negative passive income. Debt is the opposite of passive income because you must work to pay off debt. This applies if you hold debt as a liability. If you hold debt as an asset (e.g. you own bonds) then this is passive income. The bonds generate interest for you that you can live off without any work.

Passive income is more useful because it directly measures your standard of living. If your net worth goes up by $500k, that may have zero impact on your standard of living. However, if your passive income goes up by e.g. $1000 per month, that is actual cash in your hands. It directly impacts how much you spend and directly impacts your standard of living.

So how much passive income is enough? It all depends on the person. Everyone is different. It also depends on the city you live in. Some cities are expensive while others are cheap.

However, using Melbourne, Australia for this example, in my opinion, to cover the basic necessities of life, passive income of about A$2000 per month (US$1500 per month) at a minimum is needed, in my opinion.

Currently I work, and I do like my job at the moment, but loving my job is a recent experience. For a long time I have hated my job mainly because I have had bad managers. Something I have learned is that things change all the time at work, so you need to have an exit plan at all times. Too many people get a job, expect they will always love the job and always make good money, so they go into debt to get a mortage, have children, inflate their lifestyle, etc and then suddenly they find they hate their job, but by then they are trapped. I made this realization early on in my career because, when I started working, I went through a restructure in the organisation. I learned quickly how risky it was to have debt and obligations, and I realised the value of structuring your life so that you have the ability to walk away from anything, not just your job but from any person or any organisation. There is great power in being able to disappear at the drop of a hat, and this is achieved with passive income coupled with minimum or no obligation (including financial obligation i.e. debt).

Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.

~ Neil McCauley

Even if there were a restructure at work or a tyrannical manager took over and started legally abusing staff, with passive income of $2000 per month, it is easy to stop work and live an urban hermit lifestyle e.g. renting a one-bedroom unit on the outskirts of the city (e.g. this place in Frankston), living off Aussielent, and surfing the internet all day. The only costs are rent ($1000 per month), Aussielent ($320 per month), wifi ($50 per month), electricity ($100 per month), and water ($100 per month), which comes to a total of $1570 per month. I round that up to $2k per month just to give a little buffer. Nevertheless, this is quite a spartan minimalist lifestyle. Doubling it makes $4k per month passive income, which I feel is enough to really enjoy a comfortable and luxurious lifestyle e.g. travelling, living in the city, eating out, etc. Nevertheless, $2000 to $4000 per month in passive income is a good range to aim for.