When it comes to early retirement, is it pure luck or good decision-making that makes it possible for so many people to quit the rat race early? How much influence does good fortune really have?
My short answer to that question? Some.
Here is my longer answer – The thought that achieving financial independence and early retirement is a “privilege” strikes me as an arrogant and unfriendly way to describe early retirement. The problem is “privilege” makes it seem as though early retirement is only handed to those who are worthy enough, and that’s not the message that we in the early retirement community want to give out.
As most of you know, my wife and I retired at 35 and 33, respectively. We travel full-time in our 30′ Airstream and love every minute of it. And, we wouldn’t trade it for anything.
The pursuit of this wonderful goal is not a “privilege”; by that, I mean it is not only available just to a select few of us, or only the smartest among us, college-educated or those who come from perfectly-manicured families in well-to-do neighborhoods.
Truthfully, this subject is a bit of a pet peeve of mine.
While there is no question that good luck and positive fortune helps tremendously with our ability to retire early, I do not believe that good fortunes are the primary enabling factor behind retiring early, and too much emphasis on pure luck brazenly downplays the influence that our decisions have in our lives.
It’s a slap in the face to those of us who worked our ass off to achieve amazing goals.
The truth is the decisions that we make throughout our lives have a significant impact on our ability to achieve our goals, financial and otherwise, and early retirement is available to more people than many of us might realize.
Privilege and good fortune only go so far
Am I “lucky” to be in the position to set myself up for early retirement?
Though I acknowledge the advantages that I have had in my life, I refuse to believe that I am “privileged” in my goal of early retirement. I don’t buy the argument that pursuing financial independence and early retirement is just a “lucky” happenstance that falls into our laps.
To me, that thought is nonsense.
Nobody handed early retirement to my wife or me on a silver platter – or even on a bronze one.
The fact is that even with a normal and relatively stable upbringing, retiring early takes a good amount of dedication and sacrifice to make happen, and it’s not obtainable only by those of privilege.
To me, even using the word “privilege” is a far too imperious way to describe good fortune.
In this post, I am going to take the opportunity to come clean about the things in my life that helped us to achieve our goals. Below, I take a look at some of the advantages that I’ve had in my life (privileges?) as well as the choices that I’ve made to put me in the position that I’m in.
Where I’ve had good fortune
I’ve never made it a secret that my upbringing was extremely solid, but in case you haven’t read through the entire site (I don’t blame you, by the way), here are the bullet points.
I was born to a loving family – There is no question about the impact that a stable and loving family has over the upbringing of kids. My dad was gainfully employed throughout my childhood and made enough money to provide for our family, plus some. Both my mom and dad were present through the majority of my younger years, especially after my dad retired from the Navy when I was very young.
I had no student loans after college – My dad wanted to make sure that I didn’t start out life in debt, so he completely paid for my college, leaving me with no student loans to repay after joining the professional working world. And there was no real question about whether or not I would be attending college, either. After high school, that was the next step in life.
I was taught about debt from an early age – As a child, I was taught the value of budgeting and how integral saving money was to my ability to, well, have money. Credit cards, for example, were a way to spend money without having to carry around cash – rather than a way to spend money that I didn’t yet have. Credit card debt was never an option in my family.
My dad retired relatively young – I was exposed to the idea of early retirement soon after college as my dad retired at the age of 49. While I never did embrace the concept of early retirement until much later in life, I got to see with my own two eyes how possible it was, and more than that, what it took in order to retire early – working smart, making wise choices and remaining focused.
Early retirement is a choice
Though I’ve enjoyed a solid upbringing, it doesn’t take my upbringing to retire early. So many people, from all walks of life and varying backgrounds, achieve financial independence and retire early.
It’s a choice, not a privilege.
I chose to listen to those wiser than me – I was never really a stubborn child. While it is true that I enjoyed excellent financial advice as a child, I was under no obligation to actually accept it. I chose to accept, embrace and take advantage of all the advice I received throughout my life and worked very, very hard to take control over my life, and I am definitely a better person because of it.
I chose a relatively high paying career – Information technology is one of the highest paying industries, and I decided to make that my career even though my true interests were primarily science-related (specifically meteorology). I had planned for the longest time to attend Penn State University (because they were one of the few colleges at the time that offered a meteorology program) but decided instead to pursue IT because its barrier to entry was much lower and offered a significantly higher payoff potential.
Note: While a respectable salary is helping me to retire on my schedule, one certainly doesn’t need a high salary to retire early. It helps, of course, but early retirement can be achieved on almost any salary. Yes, it may take more time.
I chose not to saddle myself with debt – Aside from a reasonable home mortgage, I made the decision not to spend money that I did not have. While I made plenty of poor financial decisions in a previous life, most financial decisions were made after acquiring the funding to support the choice. Sometimes, that would mean that I had to wait several weeks to accumulate the necessary cash before making a purchase.
While we can’t control expensive medical emergencies, we can control our spending habits – and, we can try our very best to head off a disaster before it hits us.
I also made the mistake of financing a car in an earlier life but paid it off well before the loan was up. No expensive vacations. No mansion. No movie channels. No credit card debt.
I wanted to retire bad enough to adjust my lifestyle – Pure and simple, if people refuse to do what it takes to accomplish their goals, then life probably won’t feel as happy or satisfying. I want early retirement bad enough to do some of the uncomfortable things necessary to make it happen, like downgrading our TV service, foregoing the yearly cell phone upgrades, cooking at home rather than going out to eat and finding cheap entertainment options (hello hiking!).
We also sold everything that we had and moved into an RV with a living area less than a tenth of the size of newer homes.
I married well – Although my wife Courtney and I never had the “retirement talk” before marriage, I recognized her ability and willingness to approach life with a very level head and objective mind. She was established in her career and made it easy to see that she was a forward-thinking, smart and determined person, unafraid to pursue the road less traveled (she’s a female rocket scientist!).
By the way, she came from a family who went bankrupt when she was a kid, hardly the mark of a privileged or fortunate childhood.
We enjoy good health – While we can’t control getting into a life-threatening car accident that requires hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical care, or eating a bad piece of diseased meat that sends us into the hospital for days, we do actively prioritize our health. We are avid gym goers, eat primarily vegan when at home and go the extra mile to ensure we are as healthy as possible.
In the end, our decisions are more powerful than “privilege”
You don’t have to be “smart” or college educated to retire early.
In fact, I struggled with a learning disability going through grade school. I struggled to pick up new concepts and needed extra help throughout the day to get my work done. I didn’t simply breeze through school, and I don’t even consider myself to be one of those “smart cookies”! I’m a normal, everyday person.
For example, I worked at Safeway in high school to earn money for myself, just like a lot of other kids. This included working outside in the freezing cold winters and hot, humid summers loading people’s cars with groceries – and managing the shopping cart situation! The job sucked, but it provided me with some spendable cash and taught me the value of money.
You don’t need to come from a privileged or elite background, either. For example, my dad – the son of a minister – came from a very poor family and started his adult life as an enlisted service member in the U.S. Navy and barely earned enough to provide for his family when I was super young, but he still managed to retire at 49 through smart choices.
While I did not personally struggle as much as my dad, his success story is a testament to the battles that so many of us face and overcome.
You don’t have to work a high paying job or have a prestigious job title. While a big salary (and dual incomes) definitely helps, prioritizing our future selves by saving as much as we possibly can throughout our working years helps even more.
Here is the bottom line: There is no question that a stable childhood and financial advantages can make a goal of early retirement a little easier and/or quicker, but we still must want it bad enough to make it happen. Believing that privilege or status enables early retirement ignores the impact of our choices and insults some of the amazing life-changing decisions that people across the world have made to better their lives and prioritize their futures.
In other words, living a life of privilege and basking in the glory of good fortune is certainly one way to retire early, but it’s also not the only way.
Does privilege enable early retirement?
I find it frustrating to hear people chalk up their lives to “good fortune” because it sends the message that success in this country is enabled by dumb luck or being “born into the right family” and gives people a reason to simply give up.
Don’t be deceived; there is no wisdom believing in “privilege”.
In fact, that belief can make life much more frustrating to live.
If you’re born to rich parents who give you a $10m trust fund, then yeah, that’s dumb luck. Congrats for that! But for the large majority of us, good fortune is part of the battle, but good fortunes don’t make the decisions in our lives. They don’t accomplish our goals for us. They don’t make us want something bad enough to sacrifice and escape our comfort zones.
No amount of privilege or good fortune could possibly have that kind of influence.
The argument is that these good fortunes enable good decision-making. And I agree, they can, in the same way that making a high salary can turn us into millionaires. It CAN help, but it also WON’T help unless we choose to put action behind those desires.
High-income debt is a very real thing.
Good fortunes make this process easier, but the impact that our choices and determination have are far more crucial than some may believe.
I have good news – early retirement is within the grasp of so many people from all walks of life, backgrounds and educations. Don’t let anyone tell you that you need to be college educated or come from privilege to take control over your life and achieve financial independence and retire young.
I understand that shit happens. I get that good, hard-working people lose their jobs. People fall on hard times. Trust me, I get it.
But, don’t give yourself a reason to give up!
It is definitely easier for some people than others, but that doesn’t mean it’s outside the reach of a great many of us. The only question that you should ask yourself is: Do I want it bad enough?
If the answer is yes, you will make it happen…privilege be damned!
This article was originally published in January, 2016 and has been updated and republished.
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.