Nowhere to go. No reason to wake up early. Nothing to do but sit around in sweatpants, eat Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and watch Season 4 of The Office.
For all my adult life until March 2020, that would have sounded like paradise.
Oh, but what a change a few weeks can make.
Now, when I boot up Netflix, I grit my teeth. When I pour myself cereal, I take care not to pour too much or use too much milk. I wonder how long: How long before I need to brave the supermarket again? How long can I go without washing my sweatpants? How long can I ping-pong between binges — binge watching, binge eating, binge drinking — and sleeping them off?
How long will this last?
Some days, I’m not entirely sure what this is. We’re living through a pandemic, and it’s as dreadful and gruesome as a world war, with thousands of people dying every day — their bodies loaded into refrigerated trucks — but we’re also experiencing something else, something harder to comprehend. I’ve seen people refer to it as collective trauma or the psychic cost of the coronavirus. It’s the uncertainty. The fear. The loss of control. The loneliness. The mounting dread all of us feel every day.
I know that this — whatever this is — won’t last forever. It will pass. Things will get better. Like the Spanish flu or the bubonic plague, COVID-19 will run its lethal course and, one way or another, society will rebuild. But while the vast majority of people will recover from the virus itself, traces of this moment in history will likely forever remain in all of us.
The world is changing, and I don’t just mean the world of supply chains and centralized offices. I’m referring to the inner world of attitudes, hopes, dreams, and life goals. Relationships are shifting. Hobbies have become lifesavers. Ideas like “work” and “play,” and the boundaries between them, are no longer simple. Job security has proven to be a sham.
For billions of people, COVID-19 has dramatically altered the value of money and the meaning of free time. The future — the short- and long-term future — looks so very different than it did in the “before times.”
Is early retirement dead?
One apparently obvious casualty of the coronavirus era is the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) movement. The New York Times reports:
“The FIRE movement was born during the stock market’s historic 11-year-long wealth-creating run. Professionals in their 30s and 40s were saving up million-dollar nest eggs and quitting their jobs in the prime of life to live off investments. It was unheard-of in modern times, at least for anyone without a trust fund.
Now the coronavirus has thrashed several nations’ economies, from Japan to Germany. The U.S. stock market had its steepest drop ever in March. Naturally, some are predicting the decline or end of the FIRE lifestyle.”
The article goes on to discuss the challenges of current travel restrictions, which may linger in some form for months or years to come. Right now, it’s practically impossible to “live in a cheap foreign country, a common FIRE tactic known as ‘geographic arbitrage,” when there’s no indication of when international travel will open back up.
Meanwhile, the Financial Samurai predicts that FIRE will burn out and a new movement will rise from the ashes:
“When a downturn hits, if it hasn’t already began thanks to the coronavirus, it’s an inevitability that FIRE followers will be forced to go back to work and earn their retirements the old-fashioned way. Some might even say FIRE during a recession stands for Foolish Idealist Returns to Employer.
However, as long as we keep the FIRE acronym alive, we give hope to its original meaning. But when all is lost, false hope only gets people into further trouble. Therefore, let’s eliminate FIRE entirely from our vocabulary so that we can finally make a change!
Let me introduce the newest retirement movement to the world: DIRE. It stands for Delay, Inherit, Retire, Expire.
As a realist who sees the future, it is all but a certainty the DIRE movement will supplant the FIRE movement as the retirement path of choice.”
No, that’s not satire (or SATIRE — Sit Around Thinking: “Is Reality Ending?”). We’re living through DIRE times. The world is already in an economic recession, if not a full-blown depression. Millions of people have filed for unemployment. A nationwide housing crisis could be right around the corner, regardless of temporary bans on evictions.
Retirement — any form of retirement, early or otherwise — feels impossibly out of reach for most working-age people.
And yet many of us, myself included, are kinda, sorta living a retirement lifestyle right now.
Welcome to now.
Privilege, it seems, is stronger than COVID-19. Grocery store employees, delivery drivers, factory workers, cleaning crews, housekeepers, and other essential workers are continuing to fulfill our basic needs and get paid the barest of minimums for it.
At the same time, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals — many of whom don’t normally work in intensive care settings or are still in school — are putting their lives in danger and experiencing unspeakable horrors as they treat infectious patients.
The point is that if you’re able to sit at home and veg out — if you have the luxury of even thinking about retirement — you’re lucky. I’m lucky. It’s ridiculous, selfish, and frankly repulsive to center one’s concerns about financial independence in all this.
Instead of worrying about what’s going to happen in 2021, 2031, or 2051, focus on now. It’s all any of us have, and those of us who have it are fortunate.
Test run or the real thing, this is what retirement feels like.
Considering that you’re using your time reading a blog post about personal finance, I’m going to imagine that you have shelter, clothing, and food available right now. I’m also going to assume you have a job — or had one until very recently. Maybe you’re one of the few able to work from home full-time, but more likely you’ve had your hours reduced or you’ve been furloughed or laid off. Whatever your individual circumstances, the important thing is your basic needs are met (at least for a little while) and you have unstructured time on your hands.
Congratulations, you’re retired.
This is what it feels like. This — the open schedule, the comfy clothes, the midday naps, the two-hour-long calls with family and friends, the martini at 3pm or 11am because-why-not — this is retirement.
It’s weird, isn’t it?
Cushy, hazy, perhaps a little empty-feeling?
If you’re feeling adrift — even despondent — it’s not just because of the news. You’re in a place that people who choose to retire try desperately to avoid: the no-purpose zone.
As we’ve written several times before, purpose is everything. You can’t retire from something; you need to retire to something. If you’re not spending your time on meaningful pursuits, you’re no better off than you were working 40-plus hours per week.
There’s a reason so many retirees return to work, and money is only one part of the equation. People “unretire” to give back, feel fulfilled, connect with their communities, and put their skills to use. And those who stay retired rarely sit still — they fill their days with travel, art, sports, socializing, and making a difference. Many happy retirees become busier than ever.
No, you can’t spend your quarantine/lockdown/sheltering-in-place hiking through national parks, brunching with friends, or visiting Tuscany (definitely not that one), but that doesn’t mean you’re stuck doing nothing. This is the perfect time to find your purpose.
A few tips for getting out of the no-purpose zone:
- Embrace discomfort. Retirement should never be 100% relaxing. If it were, you might as well be dead. The ups and downs are what make life worth living. Pay attention to the times you feel bored, anxious, depressed, or uncomfortable, and think: What is this feeling telling me? What is this motivating me to do?
- Let yourself be a beginner. Painting, gardening, playing guitar, speaking Spanish — there are so many skills and pastimes you could be learning right now. If you’re like me, you already know that, but you’re putting those things off because you know they’ll be hard. Get over it. You’re going to suck, and that’s okay. No one’s grading you. Your job’s not on the line. If there was ever a time to spend hours totally sucking at something, that time is now.
- Give back. Tired of scrolling through Tiger King memes? Use those fingers for something useful like sewing masks, grocery-shopping for your neighbors, or helping doctors. Or, if you’re starved for conversation, why not volunteer for a crisis support line or write letters to prisoners?
- Stare into space. I mean it. Take a break from the devices and screens and just sit there and let your mind wander. You can take as little as 10 or 20 minutes. You’ll be a happier, better person for it.
- Write. Write what you’re thinking about, write about your day, write fiction or poetry, write drunk, write hungover, write for Think Save Retire, write the word “fuck” 100 times — it doesn’t matter what you write as long as you’re writing. It’s a thing you can do in any mental state, regardless of time or place. All you need is a pen and paper or a computer. Hell, you can even write on your phone — you probably type hundreds of words into that thing every day as it is. Whatever you write and wherever you do it, you’ll improve your thinking and learn a lot about yourself and what matters to you.
(For more ideas on spending your quarantine time growing your mind and your money, click here.)
Live well. Live intentionally. Live right now. If you can afford to save money, then by all means, save it. But if you can’t, or if your dreams of a FIRE lifestyle have gone up in smoke, don’t let fear about the future paralyze you. The truth is that the next month/year/decade is anyone’s guess. We’re living through a truly unpredictable and historic time, a time that’s far bigger than any one of us.
When you look back on the COVID-19 crisis, you’ll remember what you did, not what you were worried about. Just like retirement, you can spend your days sitting on the couch, looking at your phone and feeling nauseous — or you can find purpose and joy. What you do and learn right now will serve you far more than any financial decisions you make this month.
Your world may be limited to your house or apartment, but that couple hundred or thousand square-foot world is your oyster. Make the most of it now — because you might not have another chance for a long, long time.
Originally published at thinksaveretire.com on May 15, 2020.