So if wife and I are FI, why are we still working?
Well, as I wrote in “FI Explained”, Financial Independence does not equal Early Retirement. When we started seriously pursuing FI after I obtained my PhD in 2016, we never set a goal to retire in our 30’s, even though theoretically we could retire if we wanted to.
Now if you’re currently working at a job you hate, where you’re just counting the minutes until the weekend (and then spending most of Sunday dreading Monday), of course what I’m saying must sound totally crazy. Why work when you don’t need to? Why not just sit on a beach all day, every day? Or at least sit on the couch all day and stream all the shows you’ve been wanting to watch?
But let’s take a second to think that through – do you REALLY think you’ll be happy being totally unproductive the rest of your life?
Well, if you currently work a job you hate, then sure, you’ll most likely INITIALLY feel more happy just sitting around all day. You may even need to do that for a few weeks or months as your body and mind process and eventually let go of the stress you left behind.
But eventually, you’re going to want to do something with your life. That’s just how humans are wired, though of course there is great variation in how much people want to accomplish, short and long-term.
Quoting the Harvard Business Review: “The importance of having a job extends far beyond the salary attached to it. A large stream of research has shown that the non-monetary aspects of employment are also key drivers of people’s wellbeing. Social status, social relations, daily structure, and goals all exert a strong influence on people’s happiness.”
The Value of Education – Not Just for Getting a Higher Paying Job!
Another quote from that same HBR article: “people working blue-collar jobs report lower levels of overall happiness in every region around the world. This is the case across a variety of labor-intensive industries like construction, mining, manufacturing, transport, farming, fishing, and forestry.”
This quote makes it sound like “blue-collar” = less happy life (on average). But I’d argue something different: “low mental stimulation” job = less happy life (on average). There are millions of traditional “blue-collar” jobs that require significant skill, education, and creativity – and people in those jobs also tend to be happier. I bet most skilled plumbers, electricians, or carpenters would agree with me. I’ve personally met a number of plumbers and “tradespeople” that clearly loved their job.
Of course there are exceptions to this rule in both directions: there are plenty of miserable plumbers (and office workers of course!) and plenty of happy people that are totally content doing menial tasks every day, all day. But I think on average, it’s a pretty safe rule of thumb that the happiest people on average are those who have developed advanced skills through education and/or experience and use those skills to add value / make money. Those folks will on average a) earn more, b) have substantially greater autonomy, c) work fewer hours, d) develop strong connections with other highly skilled people in their field, forming strong friendships and business connections that lead to even more opportunities, and e) have endless opportunities to learn more and grow and achieve even greater levels of happiness.
Finally actually answering the question – Why are we still working?
For my wife and I, we worked tremendously hard to obtain our education (formal and informal, in school and in our jobs), and the resulting dividends we’re now seeing are staggering. Yes, we both have healthy salaries, but having the opportunity to productively employ the skills and knowledge we’ve honed over time on challenging and exciting problems provides us with tremendous fulfillment and mental stimulation. On top of that, we both work with great teams of people we respect, and in well run organizations.
So after reading everything above, I hope it’s not too surprising to anyone that we’re still working even after achieving FI. And of course if we do ever start to enjoy our work less, we have the option to go do something else. More perks of continuing to work (but again, not the main reasons) are a) adding to margin of safety, b) access to great retirement savings benefits, and of course c) the health insurance provided by our employers (though we could get coverage through Obamacare if needed).
A Couple of Bonus Thoughts On Working Pre- and Post-FI
1) Let’s say you hate your job, you’re miserable, and just want to escape. The great news is that FI provides the freedom and time to pursue areas you’re more interested in, and can include going back to school for a while to get re-trained on a totally different field if you want. Which as I argue above, I think is far more likely to lead to long-term deep happiness than watching Netflix all day.
2) More great news: you don’t need to get all the way to FI to implement an escape plan. As described extensively in the FI community, there are many levels of FI, from “debt-free” to “decent emergency fund saved up” to “a few months of living expenses saved up” to “a few years of living expenses saved up” to “Lean FI” (saved enough to meet required expenses with 4% rule) to “Standard FI” to “Fat FI”. And I know I’m leaving out many other sub-steps.
Very awesomely, the benefits start to accrue immediately on this journey. Specific to finding work that you enjoy more, you definitely do not need to wait until you are fully FI. For example: Let’s say you’ve worked to get your spending down to $40K a year, and you have saved up $40K. That’s a full year of expenses you can cover at that point. There are LOTS of training programs available that take less than a year to complete and can immediately lead to fantastic employment / entrepreneurial opportunities. You don’t need to try to squeeze a training program into the evenings/weekends when you’re totally exhausted from your shitty job, taking care of your kids, and trying to put dinner on the table.
I continue to be amazed how pursuing FI can so powerfully change an entire person’s life for the better. The FI goal turns a vicious downward cycle of despair into a virtuous circle upwards to heights you can barely dream of before starting your FI journey. Continuing our example from above, once you obtain that job that probably pays more and that you enjoy much more, you’ll instantly increase your savings rate and thus accelerate your timeline to full FI. And because you enjoy your job more, you’ll probably do a better job as well, leading to more and better pay raises, which AGAIN accelerates your FI timeline. The entire process feeds on itself until you have an nearly unstoppable snowball of success (affiliate link) pushing you forward in life faster than you can imagine.
And by the time you reach full FI, I hope you are in the same boat that my wife and I are in: you’re enjoying your work so much that you want to keep going!