Early Retirement as a Theology

There’s a peculiar sort of parallel between the broad ‘belief’ of early retirement and Christian theology.

Broadly speaking, the popular understanding of a ‘Christian’ life, is one of someone striving to be virtuous. This entails cultivating various positive characteristics, such as charity, faith, tolerance, etc., and resisting various temptations, such as lust, gluttony, anger, etc. Should one successfully cultivate and resist, there is a reward: heaven. On the other hand, succumb to temptation, or remain uncultivated, and there is only agony in the future.

Broadly speaking, those in the early retirement community have an understanding of a ‘good’ life. One must strive to be virtuous, while avoiding sins. Virtues include self-reliance, frugality, creativity, etc., while sins include gluttony, lust for objects, sloth, etc. Should one successfully cultivate virtues and abstain from sin, there is a reward: retirement. On the other hand, succumb to temptation or remain unvirtuous, and there is only work stretching into the future.

There’s an awful lot in common between these views of the world. One difference that stands out, though, is that most religion actively shuns evidence, and makes a fetish of faith. On the other hand, the early retirement community tends to seek concrete evidence: numbers in spreadsheets, active calculations of cost reductions, factual stories of retirement dreams achieved.



Sunday nights, in the summer: I’ll pad down my little railway apartment to the refrigerator, navigating through the darkness. The heat here, in NYC, can be oppressive; I wear only flip-flops and athletic shorts. Grabbing a snack, I turn around: I’ve closed the door in the middle of the apartment behind me, and light shines shines around the edges.. Pushing through this door, I feel the artificially cool air on my face as I enter the two-room air-conditioned nest I’ve made for myself. It’s mostly empty: a closet; a couch sitting very close to a flat-screen TV (it appears large enough that I feel as though I’m at a movie theater). Shelves of books, a nightstand, a bed. The floor is clean – mopped this morning; the couch is clear and covered in a clean sheet – the bed has clean sheets, too. I flop on the couch and pick up the book I’ve been reading.

The details change with the seasons: in the fall, I wear a t-shirt as well. Sunday-night football is on TV, the windows are wide open, I grab a beer from the refrigerator. In winter, I have on sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and there are big fluffy comforters on the bed. I love these little details, which denote the passing of time.

When I was a little kid, I went on long car-camping trips with my parents. We’d travel around, sleeping in national parks, state parks… if we were desperate, shitty KOA campgrounds. I enjoyed everything about car-camping. Finding where we were on the map, giving directions to my mother or father which road would get us to our destination. Napping in the back of the van. Nights on the highway, staring out the windows at the orange glow of streetlamps. Setting up a tent after pulling into a new campground, watching the sun go down, starting a fire, cooking pancakes on a Coleman propane stove. To me, these memories, the processes and rituals of travel, are worth as much as the amazing natural scenery that I saw.

Every week, or two weeks, we’d be getting a little grimy. Campground showers, always cold, were not something to thoroughly scrub under. In warmer weather, there was no relief at night, either, sweating in a hot tent. So we’d pick a town and find a hotel. These hotels – Motel 6, Super 8, Days Inn, were very cheap. $40 a night, maybe 50. But to me they were the height of comfort. We’d rush into the room – utilitarian, but clean – with a bag or two, and crank up the air conditioning. Take a quick shower and rinse off the dirt, and then go out for fast food. When we got back – with our free refills of soda – the room would be Arctic. I’d pad down the hall – which smelled inevitably of carpet cleaner – in sandles to the ice machine. Getting back, I’d lay down and watch Nick at Night: reruns of syndicated TV shows from the 50s or 60s. In the morning, if we were lucky, there’d be a continental breakfast. Cheap muffins and bagels, maybe some tiny boxes of cereal or old bananas. And then eating them while watching classic cartoons (the only time my parents allowed me to watch cartoons as a kid), as we slowly packed up.

Some nights evoke those memories. The chilly air, the simple, tidy room, clean sheets, a ready source of entertainment… it’s not much, but it’s enough to make me very happy. Enough that I realize just how lucky I am, that even my modest surroundings are a life of luxury unimaginable to most of the world.