Why Retirement is Similar to Marriage

Within the financial independence community, there is a lot of talk about the date when you retire. Many people talk about having e.g. 4 years of work left before they save up enough money to retire.

However, I have heard of many people who retire who end up disliking retirement. Perhaps they realize that they don’t have enough money to to live the life they want to live. Perhaps they realize they are bored without a job.

The entire idea of having a fixed date at which you retire sounds very final and drastic seems very similar to marriage. When you marry someone, you bind yourself to being with someone for the rest of your life under threat of legal and accounting costs. The same applies to retirement. You bind yourself to not working under threat of having to apply for a job again.

What is the alternative to retirement?

Instead of retiring at a fixed point, a more flexible option is to experiment. It reminds me of a famous saying by Deng Xiaoping: “Cross the river by feeling the stones.” Rather than plunging into a raging river, it is better to cautiously and carefully feel for the stones as you cross. Deng used this principle to build modern China. It is always wise to try something at a small scale to see if it works before scaling it up.

An alternative retirement, in my opinion, is simply semi-retirement. Rather than quit your job, simply take a few months off to see how you fare during retirement. Another option is to reduce your hours and work part-time and to pursue projects that interest you rather than force yourself to do work you hate in order to get a promotion.

All this depends on how easily you feel you can find another job. If you have skills that are in demend and feel you can easily find a job again if you change your mind about retirement, quitting your job may not be a big deal. Nevertheless, when you are older, there is a degree of ageism in the workforce, so it always wise to exercise caution. Cross the river by feeling the stones.

 

The Problem with Index Funds and Superannuation

Work has been tough for me, and when I talk to people about it (that is, complain and whine about it), they either tell me to just quit or to endure it because “that’s the way it is.”

I would love to quit and retire right now in my early thirties, but I don’t feel like I have enough passive income. Passive income is a great measure of how much freedom you have. When I was younger, I set myself a goal of producing $1000 per month in passive income (mainly from dividends from shares), and I achieved that about half a year ago.

When I was very young, I was investing in boring and ordinary low-cost index funds. I also in eating in a few direct shares here and there. If you read any personal finance blog nowadays (e.g. Mister Money Mustache), this is the advice they give you: invest in a wide range of low-cost index funds. Most of these people invest with Vanguard. Many mainstream personal finance bloggers also advise you to put your money into tax sheltered retirement accounts. As many of these people are American, the advice is to plow as much of your salary into 401(k) and IRA accounts. In Australia, we have retirement accounts as well. Everyone who works has what is called a superannuation fund (or super fund). Employers must by law put in 9% of an employee’s salary into this fund. Employees can then elect to salary sacrifice a portion of his salary into the super fund in order to save on tax as any income going into a super fund is taxed at 15% rather than whatever a person’s marginal income tax rate it (usually 30%).

So I have been following this advice. I have invested in low-cost index funds and I have plowed a lot of my salary into retirement accounts. However, about six months ago, when my passive income reached $1000 per month, I decided to change plans.

The problem is that most mainstream low-cost index funds do not pay much passive income. For example, the ETF issued by Vanguard Australia that invests in the US (Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF) has a very impressive management cost of 0.05% per annum (extremely low) but has a dividend indicated gross yield of 1.87% according to Bloomberg. Furthermore, superannuation funds lock up your money until you are around 65 (i.e. too long). It is clear then that if you are investing in low-cost index funds and plowing your salary into retirement accounts, your passive income will grow, but it will not grow much, and because passive income is the key to freedom, I needed to make a change.

It should be noted that superannuation laws are very strict in Australia. As far as I am concerned (and I am very happy to be corrected) it is virtually impossible for anyone to have access to his super until he is 65 (i.e. very old). In the US, intelligent bloggers have found loopholes that allow them to access their retirement accounts early (see these blog posts by the Mad Fientist: Roth IRA Horse Race and Retire Even Earlier). The only arrangement that comes even close in Australia is the “transition to retirement” plan where you can take out money from super to top up any existing income if you take it out as an income stream. However, you need to be around 55 to 60 to be eligible for this.

Salary sacrificing into superannuation is definitely helping me build wealth, but this wealth could only be accessed far into the future, which meant that I had to wait until I was really old before I can be rich. I was building up too much future wealth while sacrificing present freedom. I started to realize all this when circumstances at work became difficult. Basically I had been saving up hard for about seven years but only had a passive income of about $1000 per month. I realized that most of my money was locked up in super as well as low-yielding investments.

My plan now is to take a hit with taxes, pay more, but focus on investing in funds that pay double-digit (over 10%) yield. Once I get about $4000 per month in passive income, I plan to quit my job and focus on trying to find a way to make money online. I am tired of working for a manager.

Ambition vs Contentment

According many, you must constantly strive to better yourself. Always be ambitious.

You must increase your income, increase your wealth, increase your muscle mass, burn more fat, date younger and more attractive women.

It doesn’t matter what the goal is. The point is that you must always be better. You must always work at improving yourself.

Then there are those who are happy with what they have. According to them, you must be grateful and content with what you have. Many religions promote this view. For example, the Bible teaches that you are not to grumble. Philippians 2:14 says the following: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning.”

So what should you do?

As with many things in life, the answer is in the middle.

If you are ambitious and if you always try to make more money or buy a bigger house, you may never be satisfied with what you have, and the stress and anxiety of not having enough can damage you.

That being said, if you are completely content, you are idle, and you do nothing. This is the fastest route to depression.

The solution that works for me is to always be working at improving yourself but to work slowly. Take your time and learn to enjoy the work you do.

Even if you retire by age forty, chances are you will discover that sitting by the couch doing nothing is no way to live. You need something to keep you occupied.

The best analogy is driving. There are times when you need to get somewhere by a certain time. You are stressed, you drive quickly. Chances are you scream and become frustrated with slow drivers. Compare this to driving on a weekend, say, to visit a relative. You have all the time in the world. You can relax, drive safety, and enjoy the song on the radio.

That is how life should be. Relax, go slow, and enjoy the journey.

Thoughts on “Early Retirement Extreme”

I love listening to podcasts when I’m driving, exercising, or stretching. It’s free education and entertainment. A recent podcast I’ve listened to that I feel I need to write about is one on the Survival Podcast featuring Jack Spirko interviewing Jacob Fisker of Early Retirement Extreme.

I have always been fans of both Jack Spirko and Jacob Fisker, so having these two together in a podcast is brilliant. Basically, Spirko is a “modern survivalist” who works to set up a homestead in the country where he can take refuge in if there is ever some disaster scenario. He focuses on self-reliance, independence, frugality, and being prepared. Even if nothing happens, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

Jacob Fisker of ERE, on the other hand, is different. Whereas Jack Spirko works outside the system (or “off the grid”) in order to free himself from it, ERE is about using the system to your advantage, i.e. applying capitalism to achieve freedom (or as the ERE website sometimes says, taking advantage of “rentier capitalism”).

Fisker’s story is remarkable. He takes retirement to the absolute extreme. Mainstream retirement advice is that you save up 5% or 10% of your income and then over forty years or so, assuming some wildly optimistic rate of return and then harnessing the power of compound interest, you will retire when you are incredibly old and frail with an income that is about $50,000 a year.

ERE, in a nutshell, states that you save up to 85% of your income and then retire within five years. Because you are saving up in five years, compound interest does not matter. What is remarkable about Fisker is that he was able to retire at age 33 after saving 85% of his income with an income of only $25,000. He achieved this by e.g. not having a car and walking to work (walking about five miles back and forth).

Suppose the typical person earns $50,000, and assuming zero taxation (for simplicity), then in five years, assuming you save up 85% and assuming zero rate of return on your savings (again for simplicity), you’d have a little over $200,000 saved up. Assuming a rate of return of 5% on the savings if invested in a mixture of cash, bonds, stocks, REITs, etc, you’d be earning about $10,000 per year or about $800 per month.

Can you live off $800 per month? In a country like Australia or even the United States, I think it’s highly unlikely. Maybe you can buy a place in the country and scrape by, but I’m not too sure.

However, in a country like Thailand, $800 per month is more than enough.

JC of Retire Cheap Asia is a retirement consultant who lives in Thailand. He advises expats from America and other developed countries on how to retire in Thailand. According to him, the minimum amount you need to survive in Thailand is $500 per month. At $500 per month, you live a very rough and bare life. However, if you have $1000 per month, you live a life of luxury. An income of $800 per month achieved through five years of Early Retirement Extreme would afford you a comfortable existence in Thailand (see Retire Cheap Asia Retirement Income Categories). This applies not just to Thailand but other countries like Cambodia, Philippines, and maybe even Belize and many others.

Career Planning is Like Walking Through a Foggy Maze

I’d like to talk about career planning. Many times I think back at my career development and think about lessons learned. What I have discovered is that career planning just doesn’t seem to work.

Many people pressure you into defining what you want to do before you go out and do it. The problem with this idea is that it assumes that it is easy to determine what it is that will fulfil you. It is not. Suppose you think you like accounting. There are so many branches of accounting that you can’t possibly know if the branch you eventually fall into will satisfy you. Furthermore, there is so much more that makes up career satisfaction than a broad academic category like “accounting.” You may love cost accounting but when you end up in a job where you hate the people you work with or you hate your manager, you will not be happy.

To complicate matters, although you may think you like accounting, there is no guarantee you will even end up in an accounting role. You may study accounting and specialize in, say, accounting standards, but once you enter the job market you may find that there are no jobs available that suit your stated passion, and you have to settle for something else.

Career planning is like walking through a maze. You know you need to reach your destination and you may know the general direction of your destination, but there are multiple walls or obstacles around you, so much so that long-term planning seems pointless.

So what are we to do when we walk through the foggy maze that is our career? When you walk through a maze, you focus on what is ahead. You focus on the walls around you. You focus on what paths that are available for you right then and there. If you make a wrong turn and reach a dead end, you walk back and learn your lesson.

The same applies with your career. You follow the paths available to you. If the only jobs available are general finance graduate jobs rather than the accounting standards job you were hoping for, it may be better to settle with what is available. Even if you get something you think you want, for whatever reason, you may end up not like it. Even if you end up liking something, circumstances change. Your manager can change. There might be a restructure. The world is not fixed, and planning too much leaves you inflexible and vulnerable to a rapidly changing world.

We need to be flexible and adaptable. We need to be prepared to be the best we can be regardless of the situation presented to us.