First Or Last
If you’ve seen the movie Talladega Nights starring Will Ferrell, you’ll remember that Ricky Bobby, #1 NASCAR driver, lived by the last thing his father, Reese Bobby, said before walking out on their family: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” Years later, Ricky and Reese were reunited after an accident that left Ricky unsure of himself and his racing career.
Ricky Bobby: I did just like you told me! “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
Reese Bobby: What the hell are you talkin’ about?
Ricky Bobby: What you told me that day at school for career day. You came in and you said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
Reese Bobby: Oh hell, Ricky, I was high when I said that. That doesn’t make any sense at all, ‘first or last.’ You can be second, you can be third, fourth… hell, you can even be fifth.
Ricky Bobby: What are you talking about!? I lived my whole life based on that!
“If You Ain’t First, You’re Last”
Sometimes quotes or stories can leave such an impression on us that we find ourselves crafting our whole lives with them in mind. Financial independence / early retirement (FIRE) is a series of those stories: Mr. Money Mustache retired at 30; Thriftygal retired at 33; Winnie and Jeremy from Go Curry Cracker retired in their 30s; Steve from Think Save Retire retired at 35; Kristy and Bryce from Millennial Revolution retired in their 30s. These are all fantastic and inspiring tales and I definitely recommend reading them if you haven’t already, but they’re just a small subset of the community of people who have retired early.
The trouble with stories is that not all of them are published, and not all of the published ones are widely read. There’s a certain amount of self-selection that goes into writing about your life online. Not everyone who retires early is going to share that, and they’re less likely to do so if they don’t feel that their story is unique in some way. We also tend to amplify the outliers – people who are doing exceptional, inspiring things – because they’re more interesting to read. Most people would rather hear from someone who saved 80% of their income and retired at age 30 than someone who earned an average income and saved 30% for several decades to retire at age 50.
Shorter timelines and lower ages intrigue us when it comes to achievement, but these stories are also more rare than we tend to perceive. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates and Elon Musk and Sara Blakely all made their first million in their 20s, and we focus on their stories even though only 1% of typical millionaires become wealthy before age 40. When we hear more from the outliers, we start to view them as the benchmark – and ourselves as below average if we fail to meet the same standard.
One of the common sentiments in the FIRE community is that someone planning to retire early in their 40s or 50s is not retiring early enough to meet the true early retirement standard in our niche. If our target is a day after age 39, we feel the need to qualify our statements and distance ourselves from the main narrative so that we aren’t judged on it. I’ve done this in the past, and I’ve seen it play out in so many comments online as well. I don’t think any of us mean to set arbitrary standards like this for ourselves or others whatsoever – it’s just a byproduct of our focus.
Hell, You Can Even Be Fifth
I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice by unintentionally framing the conversation in this ‘first or last’ way. It’s not even a race at all, although it can often feel like one and that we’re behind if we’re just getting started when others of the same age have already crossed the finish line.
It can be useful to remind ourselves of other metrics so that we aren’t hyper-focused on the outliers. We may never make a million dollars by age 30 – I know it’s already too late for me, unless I invent a time machine or win the lottery soon – but maybe that’s not the objective we should keep in mind.
In basic terms, early retirement simply means leaving employment before the usual statutory age. In Canada, workers can collect old age security and Canada Pension Plan benefits at age 65. The median retirement age here as of 2016 according to Statistics Canada is 63.
On the Mr. Money Mustache forums, there are threads for members who have retired during a particular calendar year. Out of 39 people who have retired early this year and shared their ages, the median age is 43 with a range of 27 to 59. Keep in mind that this is still a small sample size – it’s one forum based on one personal finance blogger’s following within the FIRE community niche. I’m certain that there are many more early retirees out there who don’t even know that the early retirement community exists. We also have to consider self-selection when we think about who would be willing to share their age in one of these threads or their story online.
The reality is slightly less romantic than the early retirement narrative: a few have retired or will retire in their 30s or earlier and the majority have retired or will retire in their 40s or later. Either way, isn’t simply crossing the finish line at all a win? Whether you’ve added 10, 20, 30, or 40 years of financial independence to your life, any amount of earned freedom at any age is an outstanding achievement. Personally, I’m aiming for fifth.