Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Fear and Self-Loathing in Early Retirement Extreme (ERE)

Early Retirement Extreme is the practise of cutting expenses and investing the overwhelming majority of income with the view to retire - at a similar expense level - within a short period of time, optimally 5 years. There is an internet community that thrives on several websites to discuss ERE principles.

I am someone who is involuntarily early retirement extremed. I am no ordinary unemployed, or 'discouraged worker' though. Perhaps by accident, I found myself able to do quite well and even continue investing on income from investments. (Perhaps it is not accidental, and I will visit this in a later post.)

I have long felt shame not only of being unemployed but also having brutally murdered several high status but unsatisfying career tracks. This is all notwithstanding the myriad practical skills I acquired in lieu, and the foresight I have demonstrated over the last 15 years to live well within my means and invest the rest.


I am glad to have belatedly found the ERE community and the incredible positivity it displays about its goals and methods. I wish I could have been as certain that my strategy to exit work early was valid. Instead, discussing it with others left me feeling that my budget living was caused by desperation. Every time I chose to cook a meal rather than get the same dish as takeaway I wish I could have felt sure that I was doing something inherently valuable, instead of wincing at being a stingy bastard yet again. Every time I took in a boarder I wish I'd felt pride at maximising my assets, rather than feeling like a sellout.

You'll notice that I write 'I felt' rather than 'received criticism'. While I certainly didn't garner praise as I would have for climbing the salary and expenses ladders, I wasn't condemned either. At the very least, I received blank stares. At the very most, mild ostracism which, as a first generation migrant I'm plenty used to. Perhaps that is my weakness, feeling disapproval unless Mummy and Daddy tell me I'm special for pouring 70% income into investments.

Lurking on the ERE forums, I now do not think I am alone.

Gardez la Monnaie

There are a lot of posts defending ERE from people - ordinary consumers - who don't understand or agree with it. Many posts defend ERE's work ethic, and others give tips on how to describe early retirement in the face of potentially hostile cocktail party conversation.

However, ERE needs no justification. Its merits speak for themselves. It is sustainable and achievable. If you don't like it, don't do it. It's not for everyone. No one is forcing you. It should be as simple as that. I am sure that not all attacks on ERE - for instance, that ERE does not accommodate Islamic Zakat (charity) - would be worthy of considered responses. I think this corresponds with where ERE practitioners feel most or least confident. I'm not saying that ERE-ers are insecure, but that they would not bother responding if they weren't bothered by ERE in some way. To me, the volume of well thought-out yet superfluous responses to critiques of ERE, real or pre-empted, shows us where the author's emotional 'hooks' surrounding work, wealth, and society remain.

Many of us are forced, however gently, into glorifying consumerism and careerism and I think that rejecting them leaves a hard to remove doubt of our ability to conform. While it is easy in theory to give up lunches out with colleagues, it is hard to escape the dream of middle-class upward mobility that it symbolises. The fact that we will not be able to relate to many of our peers if we do choose such a solitary path makes it even harder.

I still find myself so desperate on occasion for the motivation to find conventional work that I consider entering debt or unwanted commitments for impetus. All so that I can prove to the middle class world that I can excel at its own game, as silly and oppressive as I have hitherto found that game to be. ERE in this frame of mind seems less like a fast-track and more like going home to play consoles because I didn't make the team (regardless of the fact that I'm the only kid that can afford a console outright.)

Accept that Success at being different means Failure at being normal

But for such hooks, I think there would be greater self-acceptance of our unconventional positions. I would be more at ease with my unemployment, and there would be less compulsion to justify ERE through posts.

The key, I think, to minimising convention's power over our feelings is to recognise that following convention is merely a substitute for our own ability to make fresh choices at every step. Choosing DIY, going without a credit card, and not getting a car loan, are not just good choices. They are choices made by a person with a track record of good choices (you). Early retirement is the culmination of a multitude of your small mindful choices, each one of them good, and fitting your unique circumstances.

What is said in defense of ERE says as much about the defender as it does about ERE. If we were more mindful of our hooks surrounding work and wealth I think we would:
  • Be more compassionate towards those who are not escaping consumerism.
  • Investigate the hooks that still remain. If you're strong enough to make permanent change despite your programming, then bully for you (but watch out for the pushback.)
  • Be more compassionate towards ourselves for the choices that make us different.
Changing habits is easy compared to changing how you feel about them. Yet, I think it is worthwhile to work on how you feel about frugality, if only so you spend less time defending you6r position and more time owning and enjoying it in its entirety.

Next: Career Shame and Psychogenic Pain

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