Don’t Mind the Gap

You’ve made the decision to retire early. What’s the most difficult part of making this a reality? You might say “cutting expenses,” or “earning more money,” but the reality is neither constitutes a huge challenge: you make a plan, and execute. No, the most difficult thing is coming to terms with The Gap – the amount of time that separates where you are from where you want to be. There’s probably some amount of time that you can’t optimize away. You just have to put in the days, weeks, months, years before you achieve your goal.


A year ago, I was a frugality blue belt. I understood the basics of personal finance, I had a frugal personality, and I stayed away from big purchases. I was ahead of the general population but far from true frugality. If you’re reading this, you probably know how this feels.

But I didn’t track expenses. I hadn’t examined recurring bills. I still ordered takeout instead of cooking for myself. I bought piecemeal, didn’t use Craigslist, ran the AC too much. Most importantly, I had no goals. I wasn’t frugal, I was just too lazy to spend money.

Once you have the goal (“I want to retire early”), it’s easy to start trimming expenses. You man up, admit you wouldn’t use that gym membership, and cancel it. You downsize your apartment, you sell your car. You buy food in bulk, and check unit prices in the supermarket. You turn off the computer when it’s not being used, go to the library rather than buy new books.

There’s no doubt all of this is a challenge. But it’s rewarding. You sell your car, and your expenses drop by $150/month. You only order takeout once a week, and you save $50/month. You can see the progress you’re making, in leaps and bounds. That $50/month you saved on takeout reduces your overall savings target by $15,000. Your estimated retirement date moves 4-5 months closer for every month that passes. You become a frugality purple belt and start working on that brown belt.

But there’s only so much low-hanging fruit. Your rate of progress forms a sigmoid function. Eventually, you hit a point of diminishing returns. Now you’re seeking consistency and eking out $30 in additional savings per month. You’re beginning to see The Gap, and you can no longer reduce time to retirement besides waiting for it to pass. If you don’t love your job, it can be a struggle every day. Based on informal polls, for most aspiring early retirees, this gap is 3-5 years.

When I started working, I simply assumed I would have to work for 40 years before I could relax. The thought drove me to desperation. I’d been working 11 hours/day for a year at the time, and the thought that I wasn’t even 3% of the way to my goal, and that I’d throw away my entire adult life to reach it, was just insane. Now, as a purple belt, I know that I’m about 35% of the way to my goal. I know that I have between 3 and 4 years before I reach that goal. Three to four years is certainly better than 40. But that’s still a lot of time, when there’s a life you want to live.

I’m 23 years old now. To someone who’s 40, I probably seem like a child. But I’m aware that I’m aging. I’m aware that my body, in 4 years, will not be the same body that I have now. I know that there’s a clock ticking away, and as time passes, some possibilities will close forever. As someone who has worked hard these past few years, who kept his head down and plowed through high school and college and straight into a job, I know there are certain youthful things which I will never get to experience in the one life I get to live.

Now that I’ve embraced early retirement, I know that I am trading the healthiest 3-4 years I have left in my life for a number in my bank account. That’s the naive view of the gap. There’s another less cynical way of looking at it.

The other perspective is that, yes, I am trading away those years of life. But I can do so for more than a sum of money. I can build up a head of steam and barrel into retirement with a set of skills and talents that will help me achieve what I want when my life belongs to me alone, and not to an employer.

After I retire, I want to hike the Appalachian Trail. I can retire a pasty, nerdy dude with a big gut: fat, weak, and in no condition to backpack. Or I can come out strong, fit, capable, with a body that can accomplish whatever I tell it to.

After I retire, I want to travel long-term. I can retire as an infantile tourist, or I can teach myself how to travel, teach myself foreign languages, teach myself how to make friends quickly, teach myself how to conduct myself in an alien environment.

After I retire, I want to be self-sufficient. I want to be able to solder a robot, and fix a leaky faucet, and plant a garden, and make beer, and develop video games, and write a novel, and many many other things. I can waste each hour after work, watching TV until I retire, or I can fill the spare hours of each day learning new skills that will ensure that 3-4 years of my life – The Gap – are not wasted solely in the pursuit of money. They can count for something.

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7 Comments

  1. What a masterpiece you wrote here. Thank you very much for the inspiration. I’m purple in jiu jitsu and almost purple in frugality skills. I’m 30 and 23 do seems like a child. But you’ve got such a head start at your age that I wonder how far you can reach. At 23, I still believed in having a job and being happy at the same time. I was trying college (I gave up). At 23, I started jiu jitsu practice. You please just don’t ruin your health too much!

    Reply
  2. m741

     /  November 11, 2011

    Ha, I’m flattered. I’m sure you’ll receive your purple in frugality very soon 🙂

    Reply
  3. I like your new spirit and the plan to use the time before retirement to develop some real-life skills!

    The only correction I have for you is on the whole health issue. People who have nice active outdoorsy lives (as you will soon), and classic East-coast workaholic office workers, are two entirely different species. I meet 70-80-year-old active people running and biking around where I live who just look like leathery twentysomethings. And in other cities I see obese 35-year-olds who look like they are one step from a hospital bed.

    So I take my inspiration from the leathery never-aging vampire people and plan to become one of them. So far I’m only 37, but it feels much better than even age 18, health-wise! At 23, you should assume you have at least 50 more years before your first slight knee and back pain, and live accordingly.

    Reply
    • m741

       /  November 16, 2011

      Unfortunately, I already have back pain (sciatica), and have had back pain for a few years now, since I was in college. But, point well taken: it’s not inevitable that health will go downhill.

      Reply
  4. On the upside you get a little bit brighter as you get older, too. You can relate different things together, and it’s surprising how often that’s the little voice that holds back from a big screw-up or it lets you go hell-yeah to something that’s most people think is obviously wrong, but for some reason is right for you.

    Working is bad for you, and the hazards of the stress do seem to increase with age. Which is why early retirement is good 🙂

    Reply
  5. Very well said, this isn’t discussed nearly enough in the FI/ERE world

    Reply
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