Making those “How I retired at [any age]” posts work

Published July 18, 2016   Posted in How to Think

I’ll admit it – before I became a personal finance blogger, I never liked those “How I retired at [insert insanely young age here]” posts. They always came across to me as “Hey, look at me! I’m awesome!”, and I recited the approved excuse, “So everything went right for you…cool, but what about me?”

I usually just skimmed them anyway, because very little of what I read really applied to me. Okay, so you saved a bunch of money by living like you’re Amish. Ah, so you went into business for yourself and sold your super-duper awesome company. Oh, so you were a high-ranking executive pulling down $250-grand a year and got tired of it, saved for a few years, and retired.

And all these stories seemed to start out the same way. Nobody dives into their careers hoping for an early exit, and these retirees were no exception. They engaged in the grind. Slaved away at their jobs. Sacrificed their time (and families) for the sake of more hours at work. Day in and day out, the brutal, never-ending grind of corporate America, just like me. Yada yada…

“Screw it, I’m out!” they said eventually and proceeded to spend the next couple of years putting the pieces in place to retire early. Of course, my mind never truly accepted the possibility that early retirement was as much of a skill as it was a “lucky happenstance”.

I am now in a unique (read: ironic?) position. My plan is to retire from full-time work by the end of the year. I will be 35.

So…do I? Do I write my own version of “How I retired at 35”?

And if so, how do I connect with people in their 20s? People just like I was, who see the idea of “early retirement” to be akin to gambling at the Texas Hold’em tables in Las Vegas? How does my story convince others that early retirement, like winning at Texas Hold’em, is a game of both luck AND SKILL? After all, there’s a reason why poker champions tend to repeat their successes. It is much too simple to chalk this up to, “Everything went right”, and call it a day. If it were that easy, everybody would be doing it!

Perhaps I’ll try to connect with my readers by linking early retirement to poker. Let’s see, here…

Early retirement and Texas Hold’em poker

Whoa, somebody doesn't have many chips left!

Whoa, somebody doesn’t have many chips left!

Luck isn’t the only factor in poker. Winning at poker is also about calculating your odds of winning based on your environment and the cards around you, about reading the faces of those at the table, observing their mannerisms and noticing their “tells”, picking the right opportunity to go all in because you know your last remaining challenger is bluffing.

He exposed one of his tells.

That’s right, he scratched his nose and curled his lip, which is his unconscious sign that he’s holding a bunch of crap. Your pair of 7s will likely beat him.

If you want to be a poker champion, you practice. Any budding champion practices, and practices hard. They play any chance they get. They bet big and very often lose big. They fail more than they succeed. They misread their competition and fall victim to their cockiness.

“Winner winner chicken dinner” suddenly becomes “Loser loser homeless boozer”.

It’s a tough road to conquer. It’s ruthless and unsympathetic. The payoff is big, but the risks might be even bigger, especially if you think that “luck” and privilege are the primary factors in success. Reading these posts about retiring early as a young 20-something, I thought luck played a huge part in it all.

And unless that luck suddenly happened to me, what chance do I have at retiring early?

I subconsciously compared my chances at early retirement to winning it big in Vegas. I thought those who DO retire early were the lucky winners, too, and those “How I retired at…” posts only seemed to solidify that short-sighted assumption.

I’ve learned a great many things in my journey down Early Retirement Road, but perhaps none more interesting than this:

In many ways, retiring early is easier than winning at poker. In poker, the better you become, the higher the stakes get, and unless you’re swindling rich idiots out of their money at high stakes poker tables, your competition gets better. You’re no longer playing against doctors and lawyers who like to throw money around on a Friday night, where losing a grand is no big deal.

You’re playing against poker players. Those players are reading you as much as you’re reading them. In fact, they read you better. They’ve already calculated their odds of winning as you’re still adding up the numbers in your head. These guys mean business and they aren’t afraid to completely clean you out. And they aren’t afraid to fold, either. Winning at cards isn’t about winning every hand.

The better you get, the better your competition gets. The higher you ascend, the tougher it is to progress. You’re playing against an ever-increasing echelon of talent.

And the scariest part of all? Most of us know that luck is only a small element of winning at poker. Winning at poker takes skill. You win for a reason. You win because you know what you’re doing, more than anyone else at the table.

But what about early retirement?

Who is your competition? Is it true that the richer you get, the tougher it is to get more rich?

Luckily for us, the answer is no. In fact, success generates more success. Think of it like compound interest. Just like our next egg, success grows exponentially.

Simply, the richer we get, the easier it becomes to get more rich. Riches beget riches. Each step we take down the road to early retirement is a step that is generally easier than the last. Our mindset changes. We focus more and more on what truly matters in our lives. We understand what “enough” means to us, and our jobs take second fiddle to our families and happiness.

We begin to succeed more in life because we establish clear and achievable goals for ourselves, and we become aware of our surroundings. We win because we, like a poker champion, know what we’re doing – more so than your neighbor might, your friends, your family. We win because we’re good at the game of life…but we also cheat because we’re playing a game that we’ve meticulously designed for ourselves. If we control our lives well enough, we rig the game in our favor.

As we win, our wealth takes an exponential turn upward, doesn’t it? Compound interest means that our money makes money, and the more money we have, the more money we make.

It’s a wickedly lucrative cycle.

In early retirement, our only competition is ourselves.

My “How I retired at 35” post, if I pursue it, may be the most challenging post that I will ever write.

Tell me: How do you connect with people when telling your story of early retirement – whether verbally or in the written form?

We track our net worth using Personal Capital


36 responses to “Making those “How I retired at [any age]” posts work”

  1. Love the connection to poker because I do think that many folks think only the “lucky” retire early as you described. One thing I totally connected with as I started reading about FIRE back 10 years ago was how much control I had in the process (when others believe the market controls everything). Since I have a pension coming down the road (and my husband gets one now) our journey has been different than many PF bloggers. Since I came to the game late,, I try to tell people that hard work, great planning, and reading and learning from others has been the key to early retirement. Sadly, I think most just think we received an inheritance or are living in a way that they would never want to do – yet we couldn’t be happier as we wave to them on our walks, as they are driving to work.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Vicki, appreciate the comment. You’re right, there is a combination of both luck and skill in this business – no doubt about it. And people are in a LOT more control over their lives than they care to admit. It’s harder for some than others, of course, but that doesn’t mean that *MOST* of us don’t have control over them.

  2. Nice post, Steve, definitely some distinct differences with poker and early retirement. Connecting with readers is always a challenge, but what I’ve tried occasionally is creating a “call to action” or a challenge of some sort. It hopefully gets the reader engaged and thinking. Hope this helps, I look forward to the post!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Green Swan. Yup, that’s my intent with blogging in general – getting the reader engaged and thinking. Even if they don’t agree with what I wrote, it’s the process of considering alternatives that ultimately makes us all just a bit smarter…me thinks! 🙂

  3. I think we started from a place of weakness and vulnerability, which we’ve been honest about. We started in a lot of debt and negative net worth, but now we have a little debt and positive net worth. Showing the process from the beginning makes it accessible. 🙂

    • Steve says:

      That’s true, starting at the beginning can help set the stage quite well, describing the mountain that the author was preparing to climb. Starting half way through and only talking about the good parts doesn’t really do the story much justice!

  4. Thanks for recognizing that ER is a “game” of both luck and skill. I think that’s what sometimes rubs me the wrong way about the ER posts–that it may come off as though it was all skill. And if you don’t have that same skill, or didn’t start soon enough, or had any setbacks along the way, it can feel like you’re disqualified, even though you’re not! I like how you always say anyone can do it, it just might take longer if you income is a bit lower.

    • Steve says:

      You’re welcome, Kalie. It’s true, there is a combination of luck and skill at play, here. We all start at different places in life. Some of us had tougher childhoods than others. Early retirement is definitely easier for some than for others. It might take a bit longer for some, but determination can do some pretty darn amazing things in this world.

  5. Apathy Ends says:

    Talking to friends about early retirement has lead to some very interesting and sometimes awkward conversations. Often people haven’t ever thought about retirement (which are usually the awkward ones) or think anyone who retires early is either inheriting a ton of money or has a super high income.

    It is really difficult to make the conversation relatable without showing your income and savings as proof that a “normal” person can do it

    I hope you write a post about it

    • Steve says:

      Hehe, I bet Apathy. Relatability is tough. Sometimes you just can’t do it if the other person is wholly unwilling to listen or accept that debt free is a possibility. With certain people, I just don’t bring the topic up. 🙂

  6. Totally agree with you Steve — luck has nothing to do with it. Having an investment portfolio that grows for a decade while you continue to work and save your pennies isn’t luck…that’s hard work!

    The struggle continues after ER too! It doesn’t disappear once you leave work, but I think it gets easier because you have more time to focus on your own success!

    Sure, some folks like MMM hit the gold mine early-on and are now just riding the wave of success.

    Most early retirees won’t have that luck, we have to go build our success.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Mr. Tako. Hard work builds big wealth. Some people just get lucky, but the large majority of us don’t. We want it bad enough to make it happen. 🙂

  7. Mr. PIE says:

    It is funny Steve that I often look at the diversity of stories and draw inspiration from them. Of course, when they are connected to your own situation, it brings it all home so to speak.

    We get as much inspiration from the super early retiree with frugal expense habits, as we do from the very savvy investor who has retired at an “early age 55” with a large bucket of assets.

    The surprising thing and beauty of the FI blogosphere is the diversity of it all. I learn something new with every post I read. Each of us telling our stories and trying not to compare / contrast is where we all end up learning a ton and having some fun at the same time. Better than working, eh??

    • Steve says:

      Well said, and I completely agree. The diversity of writing in this community is a wonderful trait. I feel genuinely more well-rounded when I read someone with another point of view. It makes me re-confirm what I believe to be the truth in my life. Believe it or not, my mind CAN be changed. 😉

  8. It’s a very tough thing to connect with people telling your FIRE story. Strange is not easy to explain. I believe there is a lot of luck, but a ton of skill (read: hard-work) along the way that gets us to our goals. I think balancing those two items in a post would be the hard part.

    On a side-note, my biggest pet-peeve is when someone write a post about how they retired in their 30’s when they’re still living off their spouses income. That’s not retirement, that’s just being a stay at home wife, husband, mother, father, etc. 🙂 So at least that’s not your case!

    • Leigh says:

      I totally agree with you – I have the same pet peeve. However if my partner and I plan to keep separate finances for quite a while, it’s possible that we could end up with me retired living off of my larger nest egg and him still working and creating his nest egg. So then I would end up being my pet peeve. I’m torn but it wouldn’t stop me from retiring!

    • Steve says:

      Ha! Yeah, that’s a pet peeve of mine as well and not *really* the same. Good on them for making that happen, I guess. But yeah, not the same! 🙂

  9. I really do want to read your post, Steve. It wouldn’t be as heavy-handed as a lot I’ve read. Make it helpful. Make it accessible. And don’t make people feel TOO stupid for being the average non-saver pro-consumer. Tell your story. You had a “conversion” that’s relatable. I hope you DO write it someday. 🙂

  10. Carl Pascale says:

    Another terrific post Steve. Ultimately, whether it’s early retirement or being successful, we’re only competing with ourselves. Comparisons to what others accumulate or achieve are just distractions from what we should focus on – running our own race.

    • Steve says:

      Good point, Carl. We’ll drive ourselves insane if we keep comparing ourselves to others as we go through life. Nothing good can come from that!

  11. You’ve already shared your “How I Retired @ ___” story as you lived the life and progressed towards the goal. Condensing it down to one post is the challenge.

    Rather than saying “here’s how You can….” share the key changes in mindset and action that helped you personally achieve and perhaps alter your own goals.


    • Steve says:

      True that, PoF! And you’re right, condensing everything that I’ve written (and preached) about will definitely be the biggest challenge.

  12. I still hope you’ll write your “How I did it” story! I think you can acknowledge both luck and your own choices and hard work at the same time, and I think readers will appreciate that. (Also, though I know we see privilege differently, I would never say that early retirement is all luck. It’s luck to be *in a position* to be able to consider early retirement. What you do in that position is all you. But it’s good to recognize that not everyone has the same set of options in front of them, and those of us for whom FIRE is an option have much to be grateful for. But also much to celebrate, because we’re making different/better choices than lots of other people with the same options!) As for whether every 20-something out there connects with your story, who cares? It’s like the “when the student is ready, the teacher appears” saying: The people who are ready to hear your message will hear it and maybe be transformed by it, and those who aren’t will move on to the next bit of click bait that flashes across their screen. 😉

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the comment, ONL. I probably will write that post some day. And your point is well-taken about whether or not it truly matters if people connect with my story. I do want to make personal finance at least appeal like it’s within the grasp of the larger population. Perhaps my story isn’t the place to make that appeal? We’ll see!

  13. Steve, I’ll confess to having similar reactions over the years reading early retirement posts. For a host of reasons, they tend to be alienating and a bit demoralizing when the writer’s intent is to encourage and share a method for others to replicate.

    As long as you stay true to your voice, tell us the ups and downs of that story with the transparency we’ve all grown accustomed to, and provide some actionable advice, we’ll all love your “retired at 35” post. I’ll still be jealous and probably hate you a bit, but just for a few minutes. 🙂

  14. I admit that when I first started reading FIRE blogs and came upon yours, I filed you under the “Failure Proof” column. You and your wife are DINKs, and bring home much more income than most. It didn’t seem to matter how many toys you bought. You could sell it all and recover at any point! I know that because you are doing it right now! I looked at your net worth posts and it seemed to climb at amounts I couldn’t ever attain.

    So I started to write my own blog (poorly) thinking my circumstances were completely different, only to find that they aren’t. Even though I do have two kids, my wife and I are both in our 30s and our Household earnings put us easily in the top 10% of the country. What’s more is we live in the Midwest where the cost of living is already low. Combine that with taking your advice and minimizing our possessions, we could retire in just a handful of years as well.

    Needless to say, now you are on my list of weekly reads!

    I think more detail on what motivated you to change would be fascinating. It’s far to easy to judge people by a handful of blog posts.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Marc, appreciate your honesty. Good call on writing more about the motivation to retire early and travel the country. There’s a lot of detail there, and it never hurts to get that down on digital paper. Thanks for the idea!

  15. LazyFIGuy says:

    I’ve still got a long way to go before I ever write that “How I retired” post on my blog. Mainly, I write posts for posterity. I want to reach my goal then go back and see what I was concerned about, what my mindset was during the journey. Also, I hope that anyone visiting my blog can see that reaching FIRE doesn’t take a whole lot of luck and privilege. I’m not all that lucky and I’m certainly not privileged. LOL

    I enjoyed this post and especially liked your analogy of the FIRE journey to being a poker player as well as their contrast. That’s a new perspective I hadn’t considered.

  16. I actually really enjoy reading the How I retired at ____ posts! Sure, a lot of times their path might not relate to me and I don’t know if I can implement certain things but they are still inspiring nonetheless. I like those posts because it shows that it CAN be done. I like seeing the numbers, explanations on how much they saved, how they invested, and how much they made. That can be very motivating because I feel like it can be replicated.

    • Steve says:

      Yup, replication is key! I do agree that some are a little more approachable than others, and I can definitely see the motivation part of it.

  17. Matt Spillar says:

    Fascinating analogy comparing poker to early retirement, very cool. When I first saw those headline grabbing posts of “How I Retired at 30” my thought always was that their incomes must be super high. I thought early retirement wasn’t possible unless you and your spouse were both making $100K+ each and/or living like monks. The more I read about early retirement, the more possible it becomes. While it’s still a very long way off and there’s factors harming that pursuit (living in a high cost of living area, and wanting kids in the future), I’m still encouraged. Those articles are buzzy and catch people’s attention, but if they take the time to really look into it, they see that it IS possible, it just takes discipline and dedication over a long enough period of time.

  18. I definitely think you should write it, as long as the title is “Hey, look at me! I’m awesome!” 😉

    In all seriousness, though, you’ve got such a compelling story about making it happen in spite of your initial skepticism and without making some insane income. That’s an idea worth spreading.

    • Steve says:

      Ha! Thanks Matt – I probably will try to find a way to write this article. It’ll probably take more time than I’ve ever taken to write a blog post, but that’s okay. I want this one to be one of my best. 🙂

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