My heart sank as soon as I saw the email’s subject line.
In December, we feted Chuck’s 30-year career at the university as everyone in the building wished the long-time maintenance chief a fond farewell and good luck in his new adventures in retirement. He was 64 and ready to set off with his wife to enjoy the great outdoors as a ranger at Yellowstone, a retirement they had been looking forward to for a long time.
Three months later, Chuck died unexpectedly at home. He never even made it past the state line.
My mind swirled with so many thoughts. First at the sadness for his family, who just celebrated what is supposed to be a glorious start to a new life and were now faced instead with sorrow. Then for Chuck, who never got to truly enjoy the dream retirement he worked so many years to achieve.
Then I thought about his retirement party months earlier.
You can’t attend your own funeral, but with all the wonderful things said at that party and the smiles and well wishes that came with them, it was about the closest thing.
That made me smile.
So often when we lose people unexpectedly, there isn’t that natural time to let them know what they meant. Chuck had that time, even if no one knew then what was soon to come.
I also thought about my own retirement. I’m about the age Chuck was when he began his time at the university. I don’t want to wait 30 years to do whatever I decide I’m going to do when I retire. Chuck did everything you’re supposed to do to reach a dream he never got to live.
Sure, lots of people don’t meet that fate. They retire at 65, travel the world, see their grandkids have kids, while away the day playing pinochle with their retired friends and bid this world adieu in their late 80s or even 90s.
But some of them are Chuck.
What am I doing to live life today?
FIRE seekers choose live at least part of their life today for the uncertain future.
Financial independence doesn’t happen by accident. It takes planning, delayed gratification, an acknowledgement that there is a future you who needs the resources today’s you controls. That takes a future-based mindset.
However, just like you can live too much in the present and neglect the future, you can also live too much for the future and not appreciate the present.
Sometimes I catch myself looking at the clock mid-afternoon on a Saturday and thinking the day is almost over. Never mind that I might have another five to seven hours of the day left, my brain is already scanning to tomorrow — to the future.
I plan my spending years into the future.
What if the future never comes?
Tomorrow only exists as a dream. I don’t say that to be a downer. Nor do I say it to excuse the “you only live once” crowd that can’t see past today and one day wakes up to realize they can’t afford another day.
It’s all a balance. Not just in money, but also in time, attention — intention. Paula Pant says you can afford anything, but not everything. She’s absolutely right. Everything is a tradeoff. It’s all a tradeoff of time.
The individuality of equilibrium
Everything we do, everything we buy, everything we invest — it’s all just a barter for time. We trade time for money at our jobs. We trade that money for pieces of companies to invest, with the hope that our investment will allow us to trade less future time for future money. We trade an hour in front of the television for an hour doing other things. Those are all conscious decisions about how we use our time based on what we feel at that moment.
Sometimes time gets away from us. We look back on another day gone by and wonder whether that was time well spent. That definition differs for all of us.
For those who fall in the YOLO camp, they may very well feel the best exchange of their time is to earn the money to spend on whatever they want. If they’re living with intention, making that conscious choice with no regrets, who am I to disagree?
They may look at how I spend my time and my money and think what I’m doing is a colossal waste of time. And those on the ultra-frugal scale may look at the same circumstances and reach the same conclusion for totally opposite reasons.
My family needs to be comfortable with our own journey. It won’t look like yours, and both you and I have to recognize that. We may share commonalities. We may share philosophies. We may share segments of the trip, where we ride side by side toward our destination. But we will not get there the exact same way at the exact same time.
What we can do is share our story, support one another, and appreciate the journey.
And one other thing.
Recognize the people riding along with you.
One of them might be Chuck.
Very thoughtful post. My in-laws unexpectedly lost a dear friend earlier this year at age 67. Barely five years into retirement. You make a great argument here for early retirement. Avoid any future regrets!!!
Thanks. I think we see retirement as some far-out thing that happens when you’re “old.” But it’s crazy when you start paying attention to what age people die. I’ve had three former co-workers die, one around 50, one in early 40s and another in late 30s. Then I see my peers’ parents dying in their early to late 60s. It definitely speaks to living an intentional life, but also to not assuming you’ll have some long run of healthy retirement if you go at 65. I just always have to remind myself I should be doing more meaningful things than what I sometimes do to pass the time.
In 2003, my husband and I went on vacation and came home to two “Chucks”. One guy even had his first golf vacation booked. He never made it.
We didn’t want to end up as Chucks so from that moment on (pretty much), we sold everything we owned, quit our jobs and in May 2005, we loaded up our van with our remaining possessions and our cat and headed south.
We created a great life for ourselves with no regrets and in 2008, came back to Canada. Since that time, we have spent 4 months a year at our other home (in southern Mexico).
We are currently selling our home and possessions (in Canada) again. My husband will retire and we will spend 6 months a year in Mexico.
Life is short no matter how long you life. Best to make the most of it.
P.S. Have you thought about adding a “subscribe” option to your blog. Please let me know when you do.
Wow, Sarah! That’s an amazing story! To take such serious action from that moment takes some clarity and courage. I’ll have to go read up on your experience.
I’ll have to look into the subscribe option. I’m sure it’s an easy plug-in or setting I just need to set up. Thanks for the idea!
Sarah, just get onto Feedly.
Then you can have all the blogs you want to subscribe to arrive in one place without cluttering up your email account. Every time a blogger presses ‘publish’, the post pops into your Feedly account.
It’s really easy to set up and it works a treat.
Having just turned 40 this summer, people ask me half jokingly how I feel. I honestly don’t feel any different physically or mentally… But I do suddenly have this greater sense of urgency. College was only 4 years but it felt like a while lifetime within a lifetime. The past 18 years since then have flown. I’ve done a lot (marriage, house, kids, etc) but I also haven’t done a lot.
Mid life. Here I am. What’s my purpose? Goals, dreams?
Chuck stories sink in more than ever, and they remind me not only to live life in the present for today, but also to keep focused on FIRE everyday.
With any luck, I’ll get to my Yellowstone and my golf trip, and many more before my ticket is punched.
(And no regrets but I also can’t help but think about if I’d had the FIRE community 18+ years ago … and where my family and I would be right now! Maybe Yellowstone!)
Agreed on how quick post-college seems to have passed. I wonder if that’s because of the importance of shifting into adulthood, or because there’s so much packed into such a short time, or if we just romanticize it years later. Or maybe it’s just because each passing year is a smaller and smaller percentage of our lifespan, like how when we were little it took FOREVER for Christmas to come around. Now I think, man, it’s already September and Christmas will be here in a blink — and wasn’t it here not that long ago?
I wish I would have caught the FIRE bug earlier, too. I wouldn’t have made some of the mistakes I did a decade ago and would have been way ahead of the game by now. But, like you, I can’t say I really regret it. I’m happy to be in the position I’m in knowing what I know now. That’s way better than getting to 55 and realizing I should have been paying attention to this stuff in my 30s!
This is exactly how I feel when I see this at my company. It’s so sad and motivating at the same time. I’ve also had a few co-workers that have been taken too soon by tragic circumstances and you can’t help thinking what else they could have given to the world. Thanks for putting this into words that I plan to share with my friends that don’t understand (or can’t comprehend) my path towards FIRE.
Very nice and thoughtfully written article. I completely agree with your assessment that a balanced view is needed in the build up to Fire. I also agree everyone should chart their own path based on their principles and goals. What we should be mindful about is not letting life pass by waiting for a distant goal of Fire.
My gym teacher from elementary school retired and then passed away on a golf course in Florida three months later. That was my first time realizing that planning for something so far away is not guaranteed. Thanks for sharing the story of Chuck and reminding us all how precious time is.
It’s definitely a balance, living for today and saving for the future. It’s one of the things I really enjoy about the FIRE community, seeing how everyone juggles those potentially competing priorities. It’s also nice to read how people with different approaches and circumstances work through that decision. You just don’t see that kind of honesty and transparency everywhere.