How Do You Aspire To Retire?

Spending the majority of my 20’s traveling I have been posed the question “What are you going to do about retirement?” countless times.  It is a question that looms over many people, preventing them from chasing their dreams in the here and now.  Rather they daydream about all the things they will be able to do when they retire wealthy.  Man, those 60’s and 70’s are gonna be top notch if I put in all the hard work now.  

After working one year at J.P. Morgan, my first job in the corporate world, I realized that this outlook so reinforced by society doesn’t sit well with me.  In fact, we don’t vibe at all.  That’s not to say I devalue hard work or the idea of working towards something.  Call me a member of the instant gratification club if you must but why wait until you’re 65 to retire and do the things you love?  Why not take advantage of the vitality of your youth to do those things on your bucket list while you’re in good health?  Would you rather invest your time and money in a distant future that offers no guarantees?  Or does that money serve you better spent exploring whatever your heart desires, seeking those moments that make you take a step back and go ‘Wow, life is an incredible adventure!’?  Some of us are more predisposed towards seeking security while others towards seeking adventure.  I fall into the latter category.  (I think anyone who has driven a motorcycle throughout Asia or has willingly earned under the poverty line for many years can’t be too focused on security!)

Returning back to the USA for the summer I have been posed with a variation of the retirement question many times over.  Recently while helping my Aunt to move houses I had a train of thought that played itself out in my mind.  

Imagine you’ve lived in a house for 30 years.  It’s time for you to settle down somewhere else and enjoy the fruits of all your labors.  You’ve reached retirement, you survived 40+ years of work!  Go you!  You bring in a realtor to check out your house because you want to receive the maximum value for your casa.  The realtor goes through the house and says, ‘We need to replace the countertops, paint the walls, refinish the cabinets, add a garden, and update the bathroom.”  The realtor knows best and it will make the house more attractive so let’s invest, it will pay dividends on the sale.

All of the updates and repairs get completed and you think, ‘Wow, this is my house?  It looks amazing!”.  All of a sudden you feel a bit more attached to the house and become nostalgic, thinking of all the times you thought ‘A garden would really provide some nice ambiance to the backyard.‘  or ‘It would be heavenly to have a shower with one of those rain faucets.’  Now this house is finally displaying the potential you’ve always envisioned.  You can be proud to put your house on the market and that someone else will be attracted to its charm.

But then you get to thinking a bit more.  “I’ve had this money saved up in my account for decades, waiting for the right time to fix up the house for this sale.  What if I had invested this money years ago?  I could have had my rain shower and my nice garden.  I could have enjoyed all of these amenities along the way and the house would still be ready for sale today (provided the dogs didn’t dig up the garden too much)”.  It is often the case that we invest most on a house when we are ending our relationship with it.  If we can afford to invest earlier do we not get to enjoy those benefits longer?  (Similarly, if we pay off the premium of a loan sooner we save money on interest payments in the big picture.)

Sidebar:  Having a degree in economics I understand the idea of depreciating value (that shower head that was deluxe in ’95 is worth way less now even if it’s still fully functional).  I also understand the idea of compound interest.  I just have a different view of how they fit into my personal economics.  The fundamental question of economics is how can we best use our scarce resources.  Pondering this question allows you to take economic ideas beyond the scope of the price of material things and experiences and forces us to ask ourselves how much do we value what we are giving and what we are receiving?  Every interaction is a trade of time and energy at the very least.

The idea of sailing on a boat around Southeast Asia, the wind rippling through my hair, the sunlight reflecting off my smiling face, is certainly appealing.  If that happens 37 years from now when I officially reach the age of 65, great!  I most likely won’t have much hair remaining for the wind to throw about.  I’d probably have more hesitation before flipping off the bow into the water below.  Not to mention the pristine beauty probably won’t be quite as pristine as it is now due to human influence.  I can’t control the future and I can’t control what my health or the health of the environment will be.  (I concur that our actions as human beings shape our health and our future but we cannot account for the myriad of variables thrown into the equation every day and the actions of the other 7+ billion individuals cohabiting our precious planet.)  I can’t even guarantee that I’ll still be alive on this planet tomorrow let alone 40 years from now.

The last time I made a monetary contribution to my retirement was years ago at that J.P. Morgan position.  If you saw my 401k you’d probably laugh and say, ‘Helluva retirement you’ve got planned there Chris’.  If I had to retire right now on these savings I might get myself to South East Asia but good luck buying that boat!  Yet I feel that I have invested heavily in life, rather than retirement.  I’d rather find a profession, a vocation, that I’d like to continue doing even past my retirement age because it gives me something beyond a paycheck.  I’d rather invest that bit of savings on experiences that teach me valuable life lessons and skills I can carry with me for free the rest of my life.  The taxman can’t come take your memories and realizations away.  

I’ve been fortunate to visit extraordinary places, meet exciting new people from all different walks of life, discover the challenges of being thrown headfirst into different cultures and situations where my comforts were stripped away.  I don’t feel as attached anymore to money as I am to doing things that make me happy.  It seems that once we open a new door it leads to multiple other doors and our bucket lists grow daily.  

Do you want to live in the house of your dreams now, or create that house right before you sell it?  Can you live a full life if you wait 60 years to do what fulfills you?  Every person has their own path to walk and can determine what that path is for themselves.  I hope that you walk confidently along your path and find security from within yourself.  A figure in a bank account is just a number until you do something with it.  Our dreams are just dreams until we actively work to make them our reality.  If we all work towards building our dreams in the present, imagine how we could transform the future!  

The more we see, the more we realize we are just scratching the surface of all there is to experience.  There’s a lifetime of experiences out there right now waiting for us to experience them.  They’re not all going to wait until I’m 65.