Awkward Questions – What Do You Do? Nothing Really.

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It is better to have money than not to have it, but the revelation of how much money we have or don’t have is always a bit awkward.  This is why most often people keep their financial matters quite private, but when you’ve retired early people deduce that you have certainly won the money game.

It’s not so much of a problem with family & friends that have known you for a long time. These people have already formed their opinions of you and like you regardless of whether or not you have become well-off.  It’s the people you meet for the first time – especially with those that are in a tough financial or career situation – where your introduction as an early retiree gets really awkward.

This is a recent example: My son and I went to the Batman vs. Superman movie while on vacation earlier this year.  We were chatting with another guy in line about the superhero movie genre and which movies we liked when suddenly he asked me what I do for a living. Excited, because I had just quit my job, I said “well actually, I retired early”.  For a moment, I was a bit proud of stating my accomplishment, but then he burst out  “Wow, you must be rich!  How did you do that?!”  Everyone else waiting in line suddenly turned and stared.

I attempted to defuse the comment quickly by saying “Well, I just did it. It’s either the smartest or dumbest thing I have ever done.”  Then I tried to turn the focus to him and asked, “What do you do for work?” and he told me a tough story about having just arrived in Florida and doing janitorial jobs.  He had worked for 15 years as a doorman at a Chicago hotel prior to that.  He said he moved in with his sister’s family in Florida until he gets his family set up with their own place.

He was very positive and ernest about his life’s journey, but money makes people feel weird, especially when one person clearly has more than enough and another is working hard to get by.  The rift in our relative situations resulted in our chat quickly grinding to a halt.  While I view any jobs that provide a useful service – including janitors and doormen – as wholly respectable endeavors, the fact that I wasn’t working made me feel like a bit of a cheat or a scoundrel to have “beat the system”.  At one point, he repeated his question “How did you do that?” knowing that my apparent age didn’t add up with retirement.  It was as if I was keeping from him some secret scam that allowed me to live outside the virtues of hard work and steady employment.

I have had a number of these conversations each week since I retired early on April Fool’s Day. I told my son that night after the movie that in the future I should just tell strangers that I am a marketing consultant.  That sounds boring enough that no one will really ask much more about what I do.  It will probably save me a lot of awkward introductions.  Once people get to know me they will gradually realize that I’m nothing more than a financially independent goof-off, but at least it won’t cloud their judgements for better or worse right off the bat.

How do you explain yourself or expect to in early retirement when people ask “what do you do?” and your age makes things seem as if things don’t add up?  Will you proudly talk about FIRE, or make up a boring cover story?

Image Credit: Pixabay

31 thoughts on “Awkward Questions – What Do You Do? Nothing Really.

  1. That is an interesting situation that I never really thought about – especially when meeting someone for the first time. I hope to proudly talk about FIRE someday and just explain that I saved a lot more than I earned for a long time to be able to do it. Hopefully it would help motivate people but after a few awkward encounters, I might end up saying I’m a consultant as well!

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  2. That would be very awkward and I’d try to avoid that like the plague. How about saying you are a freelance writer or blogger? Although it isn’t the whole truth, you would still be truthful.

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  3. When the day comes far in the future maybe I will carry a few business cards with my site on them for strangers – if they really want to know they can start reading!

    That would be awkward, I have thought about how family and friends would react – not about conversations with strangers though

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  4. Agree that was an awkward moment and I can see them happening if I would do that as well now that I am FI. I don’t tell anyone because I am sure people would assume I won the lottery or got a big inheritance (yep – neither…) I have worked hard for 35 years and deserve my FI, but others have worked hard too and will never get there. I guess what I say now is “lots of little jobs” but I do like the suggestion of handing out a card with the blog name!

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  5. Yikes – I feel your pain. In “real life” I tend to keep my FIRE aspirations between me, my GF, and a few friends. Sometimes we’ll be in a situation and my GF who has thicker skin than me (or is more oblivious to how weird what I’m trying to do is) will say something about FIRE and I’ll cringe knowing what people will think. Maybe I just need to get tougher skin and not care about what people think of my plans. But in actuality I’d rather them probably just not know.

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  6. I think I would practice “Stealth Wealth” as much as possible. Its no one else’s business what you have and how you got there. Generally speaking, I don’t think it works in your favor. People will start expecting you to pay for everything or hit you up for money. And with strangers, you don’t really know who you are dealing with. I’d be cautious these days. Its time to enjoy everything you worked for without any unnecessary hassles.

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  7. Wow, never really consider this, but the “what do you do for a living” question is usually one of the first people ask when meeting someone for the first time. I guess a little white lie is the way to go, much easier for the other party to digest.

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    • I have gotten to the point that I am surprised when the question does not come up. It is one of the first things that people typically ask you – especially if you are a guy.

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  8. You don’t do nothing. You’re a writer! Maybe go with that next time.

    “What do you do for a living” comes up way too soon in conversation, usually right after the obligatory weather comment. I prefer to avoid it as long as possible. I don’t like telling people I’m a doctor — too many false assumptions are made — and I’m not going to like telling people I’m retired either. So I think when I’m in that movie theater line, I’ll be a freelance writer and leave it at that.

    Cheers!
    -PoF

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      • There’s that. Also the assumption of a big ego, big spender, and other meaningless associations that most people make with being a doctor. The admission seems to change the tone of a conversation abruptly, not unlike your admission of being an early retiree.

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  9. ….you could just tell them how you did it 🙂 Maybe they just really want to know. Things like: I kept myself healthy, worked hard, never gave up, and share the things that kept you thinking positive. When I think about it, how did we survive the 80’s and all the layoffs — that brought us to the 90s and all the wealth in the country — to the 00’s and the downward spiral. What kept you going? That’s what people need to hear today.

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  10. Yes, I use the same tactic. I am in law enforcement and I found that makes people uncomfortable when I answer that same question. I now say I’m in customer service.
    People seem to accept me better with that answer.

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  11. Interesting insight into that chat you had. I can only imagine what I would do in a situation like this as I’m still early in the accumulation phase. When the time comes, I’ll probably just say I’m between jobs. Then it will put them in the hot seat for having a job when I don’t. They can feel like they’ve got the upper hand, when really, they probably don’t.

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    • It’s funny, because you want to be proud of reaching FIRE, but not so much to make others feel awkward about their situation. I don’t think I could say I’m ‘between jobs’ – it defers the question, but would make me feel like I’m not making it.

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  12. My, my – what a good story.

    Just reading this and picturing the scenario in my mind has got me thinking hard. It just hit me how these conversations could play out and I am not sure there is a clear answer. At least not to fit any and every situation. Perhaps my reserved personality will help me as I am rarely the one to reach out and start a conversation. But that won’t solve all situations, no siree.

    I can imagine something vague like “I am transitioning between positions” might work. May focus the conversation on what you did previously. The problem comes when you bump into them again in the cafe or local store a month or two later.

    Oh, what things to think about……

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    • For me, it has been somewhat awkward every time. One time I said, “Oh, I’m retired. I don’t like to work, so I quit.” The guy laughed, so at least it was a good ice breaker. 🙂

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  13. Agreed – this is a very interesting and unique situation. Work is always a contentious subject with other mothers. They want to brag about being “so busy,” but then seem to get jealous if I discuss using my somewhat-flexible work schedule to spend time with the kids. I wonder how they will react to our semi-retirement? I will probably be honest and give a lot of credit to living frugally. It would be great to inform more people about the benefits of escaping consumerism.

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  14. As a financial independent I plan to do more sport daily, to visit several national parks from Europe (this will take time, I know), and to make some handmades that I didn’t find proper time or priority, and obvious to read and do some free work with children in need.
    But in my opinion I don’t need to explain to the others what I am doing …

    About the word : “you must to be rich” – I received it several times, in 2 moments in my life ( when I bought my first aprt. with mortgage, and now when I bought second one with mortgage). At the beginning I was answering, like an excuse (or a guilty person to be different): “I work hardly”, or “I have 2 jobs”, or “this is my dream and I am planning this since several years”, or “I live under my salary”, “I am modest” etc. Them I learn to say: “yes, indeed, I am gifted, thanks God”. BUT best is to not answer. The people didn’t see the work behind, they see just the result; it is like a pics on facebook 🙂 – no one see the daily sport and diet, but see that I am slim and fit.
    Don’t lie. It is your reality, don’t disturb it: ENJOY IT.

    If they really are curios about this, I explained: live with 50% from the salary, and invest the other 50%.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is effectively no answer for success. I like your 50/50 answer. I’ve told some people “save half your income and you can quit working in 16 years.” The math does work and it lets people in on what they might think is a secret.

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  15. I like “financially independent goof off”! I’ve been considering “self-sponsored joy seeker”, but alas, have fallen back to “innovation consultant”. I have had quite a few of those awkward conversations. I often get told I am too young to be retired with the implication that I am no longer contributing to society. Claiming some work-based title apparently means you are still a contributing member of society! The fact I made $12,000 last year, before taxes, as an innovation consultant….and less expected this year. It’s not a lie – I do a few very small consults for colleague who know my skill set. My biggest innovation project is “me”! I am re-designing my whole life! Oh, I did try writer/blogger, but then they ask what you’ve published. And I’ve thought about life-style manager as well. I’m going to try that one next time I’m asked!

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    • All good thoughts, Pat! Today someone asked me and I just said I retired early and spend my time goofing off. That prompted a flurry of questions – all considerate, none awkward.

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  16. Pingback: FIRE Station Funny – Conversation Pivot | Mr.FireStation

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