Monday, June 28, 2021

For Me, it's the RE

The correct thing to do in FIRE is to focus on the financially independent part: the freedom you gain from having financial security. If you no longer needed to work for money, what would you do with your one and precious life? Would you travel the world full time? Write that book you've been thinking about for decades? Start a business or non profit?

I feel some shame for not having great answers to many of those questions. Or, maybe I should say that the things I'd choose to do are not all that different from what I'd already been doing while working: playing board games, writing and reading, hanging out with my friends, watching the kids, cooking, tending to the house and the cars, taking some tasty naps. But these are mundane and totally ordinary pleasures. None of them require retirement. The only somewhat impressive thing we'd like to do once financially independent is travel more abroad, and we were kind of doing that already

Besides, having children slowed our travel down far more than work ever did, as there's a nine month window on either side of the birth where we don't want to get on a series of planes and trains.

Rather than the financial independence itself, retirement was always the thing I longed for. While there were parts of my job I enjoyed, I'd known for a while I didn't like doing it for forty or fifty hours every week. I wanted to stop. 

I know I'm supposed to retire "to" something but maybe I'm just wired differently, because cutting bad things out of my life has always worked pretty well. Some of the best decisions in my life have come from subtraction, not addition. Ending toxic relationships with significant others, friends, and even family has brought some legitimate peace. Leaving my first university, and the small town in Pennsylvania where I just did not fit in, was a good decision, even if I barely knew what awaited me on the other side of the country in San Diego. 

Was there something really magical about San Diego? Or was getting out of that college town the thing that did it? 

There are other things that made my life better just by removing them. While I never wanted to write about this much while I was working, I spent my early twenties addicted to meth. What started out as a casual habit on the weekends with friends ended up nearly costing me my job and several friendships, along with twenty pounds or so. 

I started out just staying up all night on a Friday, and then catching up on sleep over the weekend. But after a few years, I'd be up from Friday morning all through the weekend. And then Monday morning would show up and I'd either have to call in to work sick or try to tough the work day out and pass out as soon as I got home from work on Monday. 

One day I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror coming out of the shower and was shocked by how thin I'd gotten. I wish that I could say I moved "towards" something, but the truth was that I just needed to cut that out of my life. It didn't matter what goals I had if I didn't take that step.

I rented a room in a new house, which got some distance between me and my old housemates. I ended up substituting with other drugs, which is not a great idea, but it worked. After a year without meth, it stuck. I was able to start doing normal things, like working out, joining a kickball team, getting my teaching credential at night after work, going on some dates. I haven't touched meth since June of 2006. 

Sure, maybe it wasn't as noble a solution as sticking around and learning to face my temptations head on, but my life got better when I got out of that house. I tried to quit a lot of times before, and I never had much success. But leaving, with a little physical distance and the ability to put my phone on ignore, that did the trick. Other things I wanted, like a better (and better paying) career, finishing my education, getting my finances together, those things only seemed possible after I was able to get away from meth.

For better or worse, I think work ended up falling into the same sort of pattern for me. I don't know how common this is, but I ended up burning out at whatever job I had: teaching, procurement either in government or with a big corporation. I'd change jobs and things would start out fine. I'd try to bust my ass and keep up with the work but, as the years went on, more and more projects piled up until I couldn't keep pace. Work was terrible for my mental health, but I didn't see many solutions other than leaving: for another job to start fresh, or eventually to retire.

I know there was supposed to be some sort of job out there that didn't feel like work, or some sort of system of organization and email management that would finally make the mountain of work manageable. If that career or system is out there, I never found it. But I did find the FIRE movement. And for me, financial independence wasn't a path to something specific: it was a fire escape.

I've always heard that escape is not a worthy goal. But I don't need to sit down and solve every problem or forever endure every terrible person in my life: sometimes the right move is walking away. Like with habits that bring more pain than happiness. Some relationships. Maybe a job, or an entire career, too.

Our culture values facing problems head-on, and then conquering them. Quitting is a four letter word, because it is seen as giving up or, worse, running away from your problems. We are supposed to face our fears, and then emerge victorious, with Queen unironically blaring in the background. We admire the fight, not the flight.

Like a lot of American ideology, I think this is too simple and encourages us, maybe intentionally, to keep toxic things and people in our lives far longer than we ought to. At least that's how I felt about our relationship with work. For the last year and a half, we were all just supposed to keep plugging away during a pandemic like nothing else was going on in our lives. How is that healthy? 

I'll never get used to how America seems so obsessed with work.

Work wasn't an addiction for me, but it was pretty toxic. Maybe I was just unlucky with the jobs I had. I was bad at telling bosses "no" or speaking up when things got to be too much. 

I don't want to put all the blame on work culture: a lot of this must just be due to how I was made and how I deal with stress. I had some pretty great bosses throughout my whole career, too: this wasn't on them, either. Work was just not something I had a healthy relationship with. I let things pile up, let the stress get too bad, to the point that I'd stop sleeping and start having bad thoughts.

So I walked away. I quit and FIRE was always about quitting, at least for me.

Maybe it's that way for you, too. I'd like to let you know that you can still find some happiness when you retire away from something. The first step can just be getting away from whatever is causing you harm, even if you don't have the next steps all figured out yet. 

If financial independence is about freedom then it's okay for that freedom to be the choice to cut out the bad. You don't always need to know what is going to replace it. 

**Photo is from fuzzcat at Flickr Creative Commons.

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  1. Thank you for sharing such a personal story. This really resonated with me since I am in it for the FI (e.g. feeling of security) and RE - (as I'm a workaholic and anxious at any of the many jobs I've had). Now I'm scaled to self-employment with fixed scopes, pay-by-the-hour and cap myself at 15 hours a week. It feels right for both FI and RE. Thanks again for your openness. -- 35 @ kinda there

    1. That sounds like such a good balance to strike, flaneuse a paris. 15 hours a week sounds perfect. I think once the kids are in school, I'd like to work a bit part time like that, maybe substitute teach a couple days a week.

      I'm so glad you're able to find motivation for both the FI and RE sides of it, and thank you for reading.

  2. A) I'm so glad you had that moment when you caught sight of yourself and chose to cut meth out.
    B) I'm like this too!! I'm a walk-away-er. I always have been. Jobs, break ups, toxic family, broken friendships - if it's not working, I have to leave it in the rearview. It started to make me wonder if there was something off about me that my solution is to walk away and not look back as far as work goes. But I've come to realize it's not necessarily a bad thing. My vision of RE is much like yours: I want more of the usual good stuff that I already enjoy. That's it. Nothing huge. Nothing earth-shattering. I just want more room for the good stuff and to spend less time on the stuff I don't care about anymore.

    I know most people tell you that you need to retire TO something, and I spent a lot of time pondering it and discussing with PiC but that doesn't feel like it fit us as much as I thought it would. He also just wants to spend more time on the stuff he likes, and that's good for him. Maybe it's because I have always found ways to fill my time so it doesn't seem like that's going to be an issue.

    I'll still think about the bigger picture in some way but I am a little less worried about having a structure for the future than I was before.

    1. Hey friend. Glad to hear that I'm in good company with both my strategy with handling toxic situations and RE plans, too. I think we might have a good bit in common with you & PiC.

      Like, you, we still think about the big picture and try to remember that our plans might change after we see more of retirement. But we can figure it out as we go.

  3. SavvyFinancialLatinaJune 28, 2021 at 2:23 PM

    Hi Done by Forty, so glad you were able to get out of the situation in your town. Glad you were able to overcome your addiction.

    I agree with you that the US is very focused on work. It's a very isolated culture. I've seen it first hand coming from a Hispanic culture. I have been questioning whether being so apart leads to bouts of depression.

    No elders close by to help, to have conversations with, no cousins, no aunts and uncles to show you different ways to have relationships, etc.

    1. That's a great point, SFL and one I should have mentioned in the post. I wonder how much loneliness and isolation in US culture play in to things like addiction or an unhealthy amount of overwork.

      I know things are fairly unique here in terms of how much we work: more than any other wealthy country, I believe.

  4. Holy crap, that's crazy. You're lucky to escape from the meth habit. It seems like so many people ruin their lives with meth.
    RE is the key for me too. FI with RE isn't useful. I was FI and working for a while and life didn't change at all. I was still stressed out and I didn't like it.

    After RE, working has been much better. The autonomy of self employment makes a huge difference. Maybe you can find something to do and be your own boss. FI helps there because I don't need to make a lot of money. A little active income goes a long way when you're FI. It's just fun money.

    1. Hey Joe! Yes, meth is a very bad drug and too many people get caught up in it.

      I'm glad I'm not the only one more excited about the RE than the FI. As always, we're just a few years behind you guys, it seems: happy to follow in your footsteps.

      I could see some sort of self employment situation or otherwise making some small amount of money (maybe substitute teaching) would be super helpful in the future. For now though, some rest. :)

  5. You're amazing. Addiction of any kind is tough to beat and I don't think there is a right or wrong way, flight or flight? who cares as long as you beat it.

    My husband and I are in our late 30's and about 3 years off FIREing, We have no idea what we'll Retire to but with 3 young kids we are heading full speed into the retirment part and we will figure out what to do with our time when the stresses of our current jobs are gone.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    1. Thank you for those very kind words, Jess. As you said, there might not be a wrong way to stop doing a drug. Whatever works is a good approach.

      Congrats on being so close to FIRE! I'm sure with three kids you are ready for a break of some sort. And like you said, you can always figure out what to do with the time once the stress of work is gone.

  6. Thank you for sharing you tough story - blogs are such strange devices, you can know lots about one element of their author, and next to nothing about other parts of their life. I don't know anyone in my circle who has overcome an addiction, so there's a strange fascination and interest in people who have endured what you have.

    1. Sarah! Glad to see you again and thanks for being a reader for so long.

      I agree it's hard to know someone entirely through the blog. I feel some guilt for not writing about this earlier but it was a boundary I'd set, just in case an employer found out about my blog while still working (or a future employer, in case I had to find a new gig).

      But yeah, it's tricky to know what's left out of these blogs, for sure.