What does it mean to retire early vs. retire from full-time work?
Unlike retiring in your 60s, early retirement isn't about stopping or slowing down. People who retire younger end up doing even more.
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“Retirement” is such a loaded word, isn’t it? For most of us, it can only mean one thing: We’ve spent 50 or more years working and now, at long last, we’re finally done. Done with work. It’s time to live out the rest of our golden years without the stress of holding down a job.
And for the longest time, I used to use the phrase “early retirement” on this blog. Because, after all, that’s what I’ve done. I retired...early. Strictly speaking, that phrase fits.
But, there’s a big problem with using the phrase “retirement” in my situation, and it clouds (dare I say “destroys”?) the worthy goal of quitting the rat race super early in life.
There is a better way of describing what we “early retirees” have done.
What does early retirement mean?
“Early retirement” has many definitions depending on how official, or unofficial, you’d like to be.
How the government defines early retirement:
According to the government (IRS), early retirement might mean taking early withdrawal from a retirement plan. Early, in this case, means to before the set retirement age which, as of 2019 when I’m writing this, the full benefit age is around 66 years old. It’s worth noting that withdrawing early from your social security and some other retirement accounts comes with penalties and fees.
It’s fair to say that this is NOT what those of us in the FIRE community are talking about when we talk about “retiring early.”
The problem with saying “early retirement”
I’m a 38-year-old guy who, along with my wife, quit the rat race. We retired early. But, I’m also not sitting in my rocking chair on my front porch yelling at the neighbor kids to get off my lawn - Clint Eastwood style.
Ever see the movie Gran Torino? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. I’m not that guy.
I certainly didn’t retire from life or from being productive.
It’s true that I don’t have a full-time job. In fact, I don’t really have a “job” at all. That’s exactly how I want it.
I never want that part of my life to end. Ever. I don’t like jobs. Jobs suck. And, jobs aren’t the only things that give human beings a purpose in life. And, I know what my purpose in life is.
In fact, the earlier that one retires, the more likely it is that that person has something - something meaningful, to consume their life. Something outside of the office.
The problem with the phrase early retirement is it implies that we’re done. Not just done with working a job. Done. Like, “done” done. Truly retired.
But, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I retired from full-time work
The truth is I didn’t retire from anything - at least in the traditional sense of the word. It’s true that I’m not working a full-time job, but “retirement” just seems like the wrong word. It doesn’t hit squarely on what exactly I’m actually doing.
A much better phrase that I like to use is: I Retired from full-time work.
I no longer hold down a full-time job, which means no commutes, no schedules, no corporate performance reviews, no awkward conversations with coworkers about their home life.
I travel the country with my wife and two dogs. Recently, we bought an off-grid property in Arizona that we’re fixing up by adding a gigantic solar array and batteries.
I still spend a lot of time online writing, building blogs and working on new ventures, learning new things and meeting a wide array of new people from all different walks of life. Really, my productive years aren’t behind me at all.
In fact, I firmly believe that those years are yet to come.
In other words, I didn’t stop being productive. I didn’t “retire”. I simply changed the course. Like, big time. I don’t work a traditional job. My former self did that.
I like to think of it as a custom-built life. Almost like a career change.
The life that you were meant to lead
Early retirement (or, retiring from full-time work) is a pathway toward a better life. A life that you want to live. In my view, it’s the life that we were meant to lead.
Early retirement isn’t about what you’re leaving behind. It’s about what you’re going to. Your new life. Your custom-built life.
Your custom-built life is like a new career.
When you retire early, you aren’t just quitting your job. That’s too easy. Let’s get more realistic, here.
What you’re doing is changing (and improving) your career. Only this time, a career that doesn’t come with the demands and stresses of working a traditional job.
Here’s the key in all this: Most of us were meant to be productive. To feel like we’re adding value to the world. But, we don’t necessarily need to work a full-time job in order to achieve that level of purpose and productivity.
Careers need not be tied directly to having a job. Instead, a career is essentially the areas in life that we spend the vast majority of our time.
That’s it. Once we begin to take a more holistic view of what our “careers” actually are, we also begin to understand that we have a lot more choices in life than we probably realize.
You need to start now
First, if you feel like you need a career change (aka: a “custom-built life”), don’t feel bad. Believe it or not, it happens to more of us than we probably care to admit.
Second, here’s the important thing:
Begin working on that change before you get there – especially if that change involves no longer working a traditional job. It’s easy to say, “I’ll do that whenever I retire”, but it’s much tougher to actually put that plan into motion when those promises that you tell yourself don’t have any momentum when you finally do change your career.
Just like you might take classes or read books to prepare for a career change that involves working a full-time job, this same preparation applies when you’re nixing a job altogether.
Quitting a full-time job doesn’t imply automatic success.
A common example is health and fitness. “I’ll work out once I retire”. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. There’s no way to tell, and believe me, it’s easy to guess what you’ll be doing after quitting your job. Or, assuming that you’ll instantly fall right in line with your future plans.
As always, guessing is the easy part.
Putting those pieces into place before quitting your job, however, helps to solidify those new routines into your life. Start now…continue later.
Map out what you want to do. Be specific. The best goals are SMART goals—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. Then, decide what you can start doing NOW to help ease the transition into your custom-built life once you get there.
Don’t wait. Don’t assume that the transition will be easy. For some of us, it’s way more difficult than we thought. The earlier we start, the simpler it will be to follow through once the time comes to change our careers into something much more meaningful.
...not to mention life-changing.