When is Enough Enough?
How do you know when you have enough to retire early? When is enough enough? In a rare guest post, the Early Retirement Dude pays a visit to Root of Good to share his thoughts.
Relatively new to the FIRE blog scene, the Early Retirement Dude is no stranger to the refined art of Early Retirement. Now 47, he retired over a decade ago at the ripe young age of 36 (ha ha I beat him by 3 years but it’s not really a contest, is it?!). I had the pleasure of hosting ER Dude at my house several weeks back, and can confirm he’s a legitimate ER Dude, scraggly two week beard and all.
It’s May of 2005 and I’m officially quitting my job this morning—or, technically, I’m being laid off because I’ve turned down a directed transfer—and part of the process is an exit interview with our divisional president.
I’ve just turned thirty-six.
Cliff is a good guy, and for a couple more hours I’m two tiers down from him on the org chart. I report directly to a woman who reports directly to him, so he and I have gotten to know one another and become friends. He’s also helped me out career-wise; involved me in higher-level meetings, invited me to the right cocktail parties, and been solicitous of my opinion.
So at the appointed time I show up in his office, him in his charcoal Brooks Brothers and me in my Grateful Dead t-shirt and cargo shorts and running shoes. I mean, what the hell, right? Truckin’…got my chips cashed in, etc.
Cliff checks out my outfit and grins. “I guess you’re serious.”
I chuckle. “Yeah.”
“OK. Can’t say I didn’t try. Have a seat.”
On the far side of his office he’s got two couches and two easy chairs arranged into a conversation pit. I take a couch and he comes over and sinks into a chair.
“Right,” he sighs. “Uh, Rachael filled me in somewhat. Said you were leaving the industry.”
Rachel’s an HR rep. “Sort of,” I say. “I’m getting completely out of corporate America. I’m done.”
He shifts his gaze to the big plate-glass windows. He’s got the blinds open; it’s a bright spring day. “You know,” he muses, “I’ve heard a lot of people talk about doing what you’re doing, but nobody ever does.”
Now: Cliff is a a guy whose net worth is easily ten million dollars. I’m guesstimating, but I’d once seen the standard executive-level contract, blank, and between the perks and the stock options and the bonus floor and the wide wide empty salary line with plenty of room for zeroes; and of course his slice of the phantom equity the company originally distributed when it was a startup, I know he’s done and is still doing well for himself.
So I call him on it. “Man, I don’t get it. I mean, you. You’re worth, what, ten million bucks? And I know you’re burned out, so why are you still here?”
He replies a little too quickly, as if he often asks himself this question. “Because,” he tells me, “you get the big house and the nice cars and the toys, and your kids are in private schools and your wife gets used to the lifestyle, and that’s it.”
I nod. “OK.”
And that’s pretty much it for the personal side of the discussion. The rest of the interview is the usual formulaic bullshit about my satisfaction with career development, how I feel the company can improve employee retention, whether I have any concerns about discrimination or sexual harassment, and so forth, and within twenty minutes we’ve got the whole thing wrapped up. We stand up and shake hands, he directs me to the HR VP’s office, I sign off on my severance contract, and I’m on the train home before noon.
I never see Cliff again.
A few years later I hear through the grapevine that the company axed him after a regulatory agency found his division guilty of violating the agency’s operational standards. Not anything criminal, but sketchy enough nonetheless. The agency’s finding cost the company an eight-figure settlement, which of course resulted in several public and bloody decapitations, including Cliff’s.
Which triggered his severance agreement. And that meant he’d just thrown however many million dollars his package was worth onto his already Kilimanjaro-sized pile of money—not to mention however much that mountain had grown in the years since I’d left.
These days I don’t think about Cliff much, but I wonder if that layoff was the point at which he left the industry. I hope so, because how much is enough?
Maybe he started consulting, or maybe he moved on to a different field. He’s not on Facebook, or at least not the last time I checked, and I guess I could google him or search LinkedIn, but I haven’t bothered.
That exit interview was eleven years ago. I’m forty-seven, now, and as I write this I’m sitting alone on the beach on Cape Lookout, a barrier island off the North Carolina coast. This is an undeveloped beach, a national seashore that stretches on and on for fifty miles, and at this time of year it’s deserted. I’d be surprised if there are twenty other people sharing the island with me.
When I drove off the ferry eight days ago I hit the beach and drove south through the sand for I don’t know how many miles until I got seized by The Thirst…so I pulled over onto a nice flat spot in the shelter of the dunes, cracked a beer, and set up camp.
I’ve been sun-basking and surf-fishing and beer-cracking ever since. I’ve gone running along the tideline, picked up a million seashells, watched the lighthouse’s beam endlessly circle around and around, counted shooting stars, and of course I’ve been doing some heavy thinking. You can’t help but think in places like this.
And so I thought of Cliff. I don’t know where he is; what he’s doing; how his life is going…but he’s certainly not sun-basking or surf-fishing or beer-cracking or even soul-searching on Cape Lookout.
That thing he said about the house and cars and private schools and such. I think taking a job you hate and getting addicted to the paycheck is one of the worst ways you can screw up your life. Money can’t buy you happiness, but I guess it makes misery more enjoyable…as the old saying goes, or ought to.
So wherever Cliff is, I hope it’s someplace he wants to be. He’d be in his early fifties now, so maybe he DID get out.
Whatever the case, I wish him well.
Don’t forget to visit Early Retirement Dude!
Any Cliffs out there willing to admit it? If so, when will you call it quits? How do you persuade yourself that enough is in fact enough when there’s always the fear of running out of money in early retirement?