If you like to learn (and since you’re reading this blog, the answer is definitely “YES”), then grade school was where it was at. It seems like with the passing of each grade, us studious young human beings took the knowledge and experience acquired over the past year and used it to shape the next.
We grew, adjusted and improved. Our grade school years fundamentally shaped the people that we all ultimately became.
But, just because we eventually graduate from grade school, that does not mean the learning needs to stop.
In grade school, things change from year to year. From the clothes that are popular to the slang used in conversation (how did “Word” ever become a synonym for “Agreed”?), the “cool” kids – it all seems to change.
We come back to school the next year thinking that we know what’s in vogue, and we’re quickly slapped across the face with reality and forced to change our tune once we realize that the wickedly awesome Starter jacket you begged your parents for is no longer in fashion. We learn, adjust and move on.
Several years after graduation and into our adult lives, we look back at our grade school days and laugh. How in the hell did I convince my friends that wearing my hat THAT WAY was somehow…funny? Or, why was that one kid always picked on, while that other kid had an entourage so long that it makes Floyd Mayweather’s look like chump change?
The things we thought were in style back then are damn near uncool for today’s kids. In other words, things change.
Fast forward to today. Today, we learn from our experiences and move on. We take life’s trials and tribulations from the previous year and apply them to the next, just like we did all those years ago. We stop doing those things that got us nowhere the year before. Right?
Actually, no – most people don’t.
In fact, there is plenty of evidence that suggests learning stops – I mean flat out takes a screeching halt, once we hit full blown adulthood. Year after year, we robotically go through the motions of living out our lives the same way that we always have. We may adjust on the little things, but when it comes to retirement, we’re a broken record.
We get up in the morning and high-tail it to work wishing that we were somewhere else. We get home from work and complain that there aren’t enough hours in the day. Then, we hop in our stylish new luxury or sports car and plop down $20 bucks or more to go see a movie to take our minds off of life.
Maybe we have $2500/year season tickets to our favorite college basketball team. Or, maybe that money is spent on other things, like restaurants or massages, manicures and “hair days”, make-overs and salons.
Same shit, different year. Retirement seems no closer, but we all still crave the blissful freedom that comes with financial independence. We make the same mistakes every year that continue to push retirement further and further back. We just don’t learn.
To the average adult, learning stopped a long time ago. As a child, every year of grade school gave us new experiences and mistakes to learn from. But as an adult, what changes for the average person? Does retirement get any easier?
Do people continue driving 30 miles into work every day in their gas guzzling Chevy Tahoe or debt-building BMW or Mercedes? Do people keep buying bigger and bigger flat screen TVs? How many cut out their expensive cell phone bill, or cable or satellite television service that drains hundreds of dollars out of their bank accounts every year? Not many.
For most of us, we keep wearing that same unpopular Starter jacket and wonder why we’ve suddenly become uncool.
How’s that retirement looking, Mr. Average Joe?
It’s adult onset unlearning. Most of us are stuck in our yearly rut of habits, especially financial habits. For most, life’s goal is to do what we truly enjoy. After all, hiking through the Rocky Mountains seems so much more satisfying that staring at a computer monitor on Monday morning.
To escape the rat race and enjoy a life of true happiness demands that we learn from our mistakes.
I made just as many mistakes as anyone, but I learned.
Before I turned my life around, I bought a brand new Cadillac CTS – and I curse myself virtually every day for it. Money down the drain on a car that I didn’t need. Mistake made. Lesson learned.
No more expensive cable television for me. I walk clear passed all those big, shiny flat screen televisions in Costco and no longer pay big bucks for yearly cell phone upgrades and contract extensions. Those expenses did not contribute to my retirement. In fact, they actively worked against it. Screw that.
Screw the things that actively work against your retirement and happiness.
We need to return once again to our grade school days and learn from our mistakes. Re-focus on what your retirement goals are in life and cut out the activities that distract you from those goals.
Go back to school next year with another $50k in your investment portfolio; or hell, if you don’t yet have a retirement account, open one. Don’t buy the latest and greatest cell phone. If you live far enough from work where bicycling is impractical, drive your used Ford Fiesta or Honda Fit instead of your gas-guzzling Silverado or Mercedes.
Learning from your mistakes takes discipline. Be honest with yourself and admit to overspending on unnecessary items that do not contribute to your blissful happiness. You may not be the coolest kid around with all the “in style” fashions, but it sure will be satisfying to sleep in on Monday morning while your neighbors are heading into work…
…in their Mercedes.
Note: This article was originally published in 2014, but has been updated after my retirement from full-time work last December.
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.