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Can early retirement be too late?

by Oct 3, 2018

Can early retirement be too late? Everyone in the FIRE community seems worried about the exact opposite: “Am I retiring too early?”.

Changing is difficult. We know what we are leaving behind, but we don’t know what we’ll find in front of us. It’s only natural to search for answers before making the jump. And, if we can’t find all the answers, then it’s probably too early to retire.

One more year

The problem is, every question spurs more questions, and more time will be needed to answer them. It can become a never ending process. Despite their best intentions, this is how many people end up postponing retirement. There is even a name for it: the “One More Year” syndrome.

There are plenty of good reasons for an extra year: save some more money, prepare better, answer a few more questions. And as the unknown scares us more than the known, we are happy to endure another year of work, which is a devil we know, and don’t think too much of the happiness we renounce to, which is just postponed to next year. Not a big deal. Or is it?

What’s wrong with delaying retirement?

I recently had a chat with a friend. She’s in her 50s with grown up kids. I was telling her about our desire to retire early to spend more time with our kids and I was surprised when she told me she had done exactly that, several years earlier.

“That was a mistake”, she added.

I frowned.

She explained: “I started working when I was 14. I got married in my 20s. We had 3 kids soon after, but I didn’t manage to spend too much time with them. I was working all the time.”

The kids, she added, spent the majority of their time with their grandmother.

“After several years thinking about it, I finally managed to summon all my courage and resigned. I was determined to spend time with the kids, to be present, to participate more in their lives.”

That was a bold choice. Where she lived, finding a job was difficult; leaving one, basically unheard of.

“So I left my job. I wanted to recuperate the time lost, I wanted to be a mother. But you know what? My kids didn’t need one anymore. The youngest was already 10 years old at the time. They all had their activities, their friends, their lives. I soon realised there was very little for me to do, beside cooking for them or driving them around. The years for being a mother had gone. My early retirement had been too late.

That conversation was a bit of an eye opener for me. My focus up to that point had been on the numbers, just like everybody else. How much do we have? What will be our safe withdrawal rate? When will we have enough? And, of course: if we retired now, would it be too early?

Numbers don’t have all the answers

I have a big retirement spreadsheet in Excel. A sort of a giant business case which includes everything we have: income, expenses, assets, cash flow, etc. Anything which is a ‘quantity’ (specifically, anything with a monetary value) is featured in there. But it doesn’t contain anything which is ‘quality’ related.

So when Excel tells me that I should work another year to reach a ‘safer’ number, it doesn’t tell me what I’m losing by doing that. I do get that working another year may be ‘boring’, but I rarely think about the more profound consequences – the things I would have to renounce to and may be gone forever.

What’s the value of not playing with my son when he’s 2? What’s the cost of not spending more time with our elderly parents? Of course I can play with my kids next year, but time changes things. They’ll be a year older. I will have missed the 2 years old period. Nothing can give me that time back. And as for my parents, well, the passing of time has even more important consequences.

Missed opportunities

We are convinced that money is all that matters, and that everything else can simply be postponed, but as my friend’s story shows, missed opportunities may be missed forever.

Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: “It might have been!”

– John Greenleaf Whittier –


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