One More Year Syndrome

Many of my posts on financial independence come from reader questions. I answer roughly five e-mails or Facebook queries for every post that you see here. I’m not just recycling my keyboard wisdom into the blog, although that efficiency appeals to my frugal nature! I’m also showing you that many servicemembers, families, and even retirees are struggling with the same questions.

Everyone is at a different stage of their career or their retirement, yet the questions are very similar at each stage. You may glean a few nuggets from this conversation recounted below, and better yet you may be inspired to ask your own questions. Leave a comment after the post or send it to me, and your advice or question could become part of the next edition of The Military Guide!

Today’s post covers a reader’s questions in two parts. I’ve broken up the second part with headers.

A shipmate writes,

“You always did talk about just retiring after the Navy and it seems really appealing to me. I’ve done nearly five years of federal civil service after my retirement and I’m toying with the idea of simply coming back to Hawaii without a job– although I am looking for one. I know I could survive financially, but it just doesn’t seem right to hang it up when everyone else is continuing to work. So I think to myself, maybe I should work a few more years?”

Here’s my advice, gleaned from dozens of other retirees.

If you have financial independence, then you have life choices. I know military veterans who have worked a civil service job for decades, and I know military retirees who work a civil-service career just for five years to get a(nother) pension. But either way, you should work only as long as you’re having fun. Malcolm Gladwell says that humans enjoy work as long as they have fulfillment, complexity, and autonomy. When any one of those three factors is missing then it’s just drudgery for a paycheck.

A road sign to work or retirement |

“Turn here!” “Which way?”

You know your engineering & management skills would serve you well here in the Hawaii job market, and even after 12 years of chronic unemployment I still get an offer every year or two. Whenever my spouse was on Reserve duty at PACOM, by the third day people could see her skills and she’d get civil-service and contractor offers.

You’re exactly the manager with exactly the skills that they’re seeking up there, and they’d find a way to get you on a payroll. Or SAIC or Cubic. Or HECO. Or any engineering firm on the island. You could even help build more homes on the Ewa Plain, or help create the light rail transportation system.

“Everyone else” is working because they’re not financially independent, or they want to see what they can achieve in a civilian career. Maybe they feel a strong commitment to service, or they’re scared of being responsible for their own entertainment. A few people identify too closely with their days in uniform– they need a staff to keep them busy, and they want the executive perks to feed their ego.

Those are all legitimate reasons for these people to continue working, but to some extent it leaves them victims to circumstance. If they get laid off, or have a family crisis, or a health emergency, then their transition is forced upon them. They may not have the time to figure out what they’ll do all day, let alone be in charge of the process. You want to make the transition on your terms and not have the rug jerked out from under you.

I’ve been tempted by a few job offers, like a GS-11 instructor billet at the shipyard shift test engineer school with people I know from active duty. However, I was put off by the 40-hour workweek and the employment commitment. Corporations are investing thousands of dollars to find and hire veterans like us, and in many cases the bosses are our friends or shipmates. We shouldn’t use their employment offer as an experiment in whether we’re willing to work full-time or not. It’s not fair to their investment, and it’s not fair to ourselves.

I enjoy my own activities, and the “dissatisfiers” of working with a corporation are more hassle than any enjoyment I’d get from the challenge or the camaraderie. I’m much happier with writing and networking and mentoring– on my schedule– and surfing whenever I want to. If the surf is huge for a week, I can be out there all seven days. If my spouse wants to travel Europe for a couple months, we’re free to go.

You could always move back to Hawaii and survey the job market. You could transfer via the civil-service system to a federal position here, or simply take an extended leave without pay. Find a rental property through AirBnB or VRBO or AHRN. Take a few months to network (and surf) and see how you feel.

You could start your Hawaii job search on Linkedin about six months before you return. I’ve joined a dozen of Linkedin’s military groups, and the information you’re seeking is all there. If you want a job with a security clearance, then keep yours current (or at least eligible for reactivation) before anything expires. You’ll either network your shipmates or start from scratch, and I’m happy to help with the introductions. If you’re seeking a career which you could work up to CEO then that’s probably a more challenging search. But if you’re happy with a GS or contractor gig for a few years then I know lots of people to chat with.

Do a hardcore career search if you’re motivated, or simply think about Ernie Zelinski’s Get-A-Life Tree to build your own routine. Find a non-profit that wants your help. Maybe you’ll decide to go back to full-time work, or maybe you’ll pick up an occasional project contract, or maybe you’ll do your own part-time consulting. Or maybe you’ll find plenty of things you’d rather do for your own personal fulfillment that don’t involve earning money.

If you want to read more about your potential retiree life, then go to the first two posts on the blog from September 2010. You can see the titles of all 500+ posts on this page, and the blog posts up through March 2011 are excerpted from the book. You might enjoy this post on the myths of early retirement. You can read the first chapter here for free, or you can find the book at a library, or you could download the eBook from Amazon in under five minutes.

Intellectually, I understand feeling obligated to work. Emotionally, though, I haven’t found any corporate jobs that I can personally tolerate for more than a few months. Your only obligations are to your family and your own happiness. You do not have to set a good example for society (or anyone else) by working at a job.

Their response came a few days later:

Thank you for your advice. (I actually forgot about HECO.) I think I do want to work a few more years until our mortgage is paid off. Then I’ll do something good for the world. I admire your volunteer work and hope to do something along those lines.

I will read the links you provided. You gave me a lot of info Doug and I really appreciate it. I’d like to keep in touch and will likely ask you more questions, like where do you put your keys when you surf so they don’t get wet or stolen?? You know, important things like that. But you seem to be an expert in this area and the lifestyle (a nap every day) is very appealing!

Paying a mortgage with a pension

Another mortgage payoff option would be to see if you can fit the payment into your retirement budget. If you have a fixed-rate mortgage then you’re paying with dollars that are eroded by decades of inflation– yet your military pension rises every year by a cost-of-living adjustment that matches inflation.

In 12 years of retirement my pension has risen by 27%, but during that same time our mortgage refinance dropped our payments by nearly 40%. We live a low-key lifestyle, our empty-nester fixed expenses are barely $3000/month, and the biggest part of that is the mortgage payment. We can handle those expenses with my pension, so our house won’t be paid off until I’m 82 years old. But I completely understand the peace of mind that comes with getting rid of the mortgage.

A middle approach to the above situations would be to move back here and take a few months to get settled in. (We’ll go surfing!) That’ll give you the time to do a thorough job search (instead of leaping on the first offer) and to give your retirement finances a good scrub. Maybe you’ll go back to work, or maybe you’ll decide to take a few more months off to enjoy life. The choices are not irrevocable.

I love talking about military financial independence, and I wish I’d made the time to learn about this stuff 25 years ago. I also enjoy helping out servicemembers & families, but a lot of this “giving back” is cleverly disguised as socializing on the Internet for a couple of hours every day. (Whoever worried about losing their friends & contacts in retirement did not account for Facebook & Skype.) Personally, it’s also proven to be more satisfying than other volunteer work.

Volunteering in retirement

Volunteering might be more fun than working for a paycheck– or maybe not. Non-profits attract high-caliber military veterans, but most non-profits lack the finances to afford high-caliber paid staff. The result is that some non-profit volunteers encounter the same workplace politics & incompetence that they tired of when they were working.

Other non-profits are just plain hard physical labor for a very good cause. I enjoy watching AccesSurf help their handicapped beneficiaries go surfing, but every month it also takes a dozen people several hours to set up and tear down the beach gear. I’m much happier sending them a financial contribution rather than rolling out beach mats and pitching tents. A third issue is that some beneficiaries might not be very enjoyable to help, unless you’re hard-wired to tackle the tough situations. So retirees who feel like me eventually wander off to do their own thing on their own time.

I’m astounded at how much the blogger world pays entrepreneurs– especially people who can write. If I turned my writing into a full-time job then I’d be clearing $25K/year just from passive advertising income and eBook sales. If I added in a speaking/coaching career then I’d be over $75K/year.

I get a tremendous charge from helping other bloggers build up their projects (and their income) and I hugely enjoy attending blogger conferences. I’ve met people who I’d never meet any other way, and it’s fantastic to watch an entrepreneur pull a few things together and make their business take off. I thought blogging was an advertising bubble, but it’s more like a gold rush of online commerce– and bloggers are selling the picks & shovels.

Oddly enough, after writing a book on financial independence and spending four years blogging about it, I’m now regarded as a “mentor”. There’s lots of blogger turnover, and anyone who hangs around for a few years becomes a wizened elder in Internet years. But I’ve found my tribe, I have near-total autonomy, and I can take off when the surf is big.

Where to put your car keys while you surf

By the way, you can put a metal car key in the small inside pocket of your surf shorts and then hide your electronic fob inside the locked car. Or you can put a fob in a small lock box (the kind with a keypad) that you hang from your trailer hitch. But it’s very important to avoid absent-mindedly putting your electronic fob in the inside pocket of your surf shorts, although I don’t want to get into how I learned that…

Please stay in touch! I’ve probably already heard your questions from other military retirees, but every answer is different. I’m also seeking the advice and personal stories of people who are going through their transitions. We’ll add their contributions to the next edition of the book.


Related articles:
“I’m setting a good example by working at a job”
Should you start a civil service bridge career after the military?
During retirement: The inevitable job offers
Reader Advice: Update on Ben’s bridge career
Reader Update: From The Military To Bridge Career To Retirement
Starting your bridge career after the military
Volunteering for charity or neighbors

About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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2 Responses to One More Year Syndrome

  1. Peter Gregory says:

    I think that if you choose to serve 20, what point in that 20-30 year lineal progression one chooses to retire is secondary to the matters of your plans, personal, financial, vocational after the military and where you are in terms of your over-all health, physical and mental.

    From personal experience a military career needs to be processed as to where you are now in terms of your wants, desires, options going forward, before putting in your papers just because you have a “hot” offer from a contractor or you or your spouse is sick of the military life.

    I took 9 months from retirement to my next chapter in life work wise to decompress, reflect, and most importantly heal physically and psychologially from 23 years of going hard in all Navy matters, I recommend the same no matter what point one chooses to exit the service,

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