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?
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