Rethinking the Retirement Paradigm: Matt and Joan Get Weird

Picking up from the previous post,  Joan can do one thing to escape any future “golden handcuff” trap.  For that matter, Matt can do the same thing.

Matt and Joan can simply rethink living beyond their means, and instead, live far below them.

Why do we have to go toe-to-toe with others in our cultural and professional circles?  Why do we think we have to wear our promotions on our sleeves, over our heads, in our driveways?    The reason is not real surprising:  Humans are social beings who have a hard-wired need to belong.  We belong by blending in, wearing the “uniforms” of our tribes, making sure that our peers will not question our choices, and we can seamlessly fit by matching our possessions with the trappings of our peer group.

And let’s think about the expectations for the social hierarchy.  Typically those who are one step above us in our social circles are one step above us in material possessions.  You go to your boss’s house for dinner.  You expect him or her to have a nicer house than you do.   What if Matt’s boss, a vice president, invited Matt and his partner to dinner.  On the way, the two of them anticipate the McMansion, the Lexus in the driveway, the stainless steel and granite kitchen big enough to prepare meals for a city block.  Instead, what if they pulled off onto a dirt road and found his boss living in a one-room cabin?   What if the boss had one bathroom, not two and a half?  What if the boss had no microwave, and offered beverages, not out of a stainless steel built-in beauty, but out of a decades-old white Frigidaire?    Matt would be thoroughly confused.  After all, our possessions are important cues about our status and our relationship within the social structure.

What is the cost of Matt’s boss breaking this stereotype?    Probably not much.  He’s free to spend his money the way he sees fit.  As long as he doesn’t wear a hard hat and construction boots to an executive board meeting, no one will ding him for his living choices.  But his peers and his subordinates will gossip and question his choices to live far below his means, because to them, it would be weird.

Dave Ramsey raises “weird” to a badge of honor when he encourages his audience to live below their means for a greater purpose.   In doing so, he acknowledges the reality and the pull of the status symbol, as well as the difficulties of breaking the material ties that trap people in lives of debt and wage slavery–just so that they “fit in.”  But he also acknowledges the pay-off.

He tells people to “live like no one else now so that some day you can live like no one else.”  He is telling people that there may be a price to delayed gratification now–even a social price, but there will come a day when your peers will be like the albatross while you will be like a sparrow.   If you live beneath your means, you are a swan among ducks.

So, what is the paradigm shift for Joan and Matt?  What can they do to be able to be responsive to their lives, rather than encumbered by them?

Here are some broad strokes to bend the paradigm–and this is not a to-do list–it’ a to-think list:

  1. Master your desires.  One of my favorite books is The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing–a couple who moved to Vermont, and then Maine to set up homesteading and build a new kind of community.  They built their own home, stone by stone.  They ate out of a wooden bowl and with a pair of chopsticks.  They worked 4 hours of “bread labor” a day and spent the rest of the day in leisure and community work.  I always assumed that they were just always happy with this simple life.  But in the book The Making of a Radical, Scott Nearing admits that he always grappled with his desire for more stuff.  But he never gave in–he simply tamed it.  Recognizing that having a desire for more doesn’t mean more will make your life better will help direct your life.  Lower the ceiling on “enough.”
  2. Live deliberately:  The myriad of distractions today keeps us in a tizzy.  It was bad enough just a decade ago, but now we have a new culture of social media and an online life  that splits our attention like light through a prism.  Work on mindfulness.  Learn to tame your mind.   Choose wisely where you direct your thoughts and actions.     What do YOU want?
  3. Redefine luxury.  Find beauty is subtraction, not addition.  Consider the hypothetical situation of the dinner at Matt’s bosses wooded cabin.  The paradigm in our mind dictates that this cabin is inferior–that the boss must be crazy, or maybe he got involved in an expensive divorce, or maybe this is his hunting cabin, but his real house is somewhere else.   But what if Matt’s boss lived here?   This is Innermost House, and it seethes with beauty.  It’s luxurious in simplicity; luxurious in peace; luxurious in balance and harmony.   It’s the kind of luxury that will set us free.

The less we own, and the less we are accountable for with our future, the less we’ll have to worry about retirement.    The less we own, the less we’ll have to spend our days in meaningless work now so that we can spend our days in meaningless activities later.

We do not content ourselves with the life we have in ourselves and in our own being; we desire to live an imaginary life in the minds of others, and for this purpose we endeavor to shine.  We labor unceasingly to adorn and preserve this imaginary existence and neglect the real. — Pascal

Instead of developing techniques for maximum profit, try to develop those that will give the maximum of freedom.  –Simone Weil

Simplicity of life, even the barest, is not misery but the very foundation of refinement. — William Morris

Be interested in the universe.  Do not cling to this world.  Do not want to possess anything.  Never think of your pension. — Okada Torajiro

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