Forget Retirement. Strive for Financial Independence.

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My first job out of college was working as a golf professional at a semi-private club in North Carolina. The course was open 365 days a year, although during the winter months, there was often a frost delay in the mornings. While it typically took the thermometer reaching 40 degrees with a bright sun in the sky to melt the frost on the greens and make the course playable, I was oftentimes tasked with brewing multiple pots of coffee for the morning crowd before the sun came up and before the temperature rose above 30 degrees.

This group of men – ranging from as few as six to as many as 12, depending on the day – would wait for me at the gates at 6:30am, even if they knew the frost would linger for another three hours. They were all retired, all in their late 60s or 70s, and weren’t about to let some cold weather disrupt their weekly routines. As you can imagine, I listened to countless tall tales and crude jokes during these mornings over a period of seven years. I soaked up a wealth of wisdom and knowledge that comes with living on this planet for the better part of a century; advice ranging from love and relationships to politics and religion.

In hindsight, what I also learned was those gentlemen were content in the decline of their lives. They had diligently and faithfully put in their 40-plus years of work, saved enough to go along with their pension and Social Security checks, and now would ride out their time playing golf. And on the days the weather was too bad to open, if the temperature never rose above freezing or snow blanketed the ground, they would still drop by to say hello because this was their end game. Better, of course, then camping out and nodding off in a recliner in front of a television set, but nothing that I wanted to emulate.

Those cold mornings in January and February made me realize that the concept of retirement was one that frightened the hell out of me. I had zero interest in plodding along in the work force for the next 40 years only to retire at 65 with no plans other than to coast to my funeral.

Retirement in its current form is a relatively new model that took shape during the Great Depression when Social Security was created. A recent Merrill Lynch study details how the average retirement age in the 1930s was 72 yet the average time spent in retirement was less than five years. Life expectancy has since increased (78 as of 2010) while the retirement age has dropped (64 in 2010). We’re living longer yet working less, which is a good thing. The problem comes in financing those 14 years, give or take.

Or so we’ve been told. It’s practically in our DNA nowadays to graduate high school and possibly college, sign up for a 30-year mortgage and plan to work roughly 40 years until we reach retirement. At that point, we drift off into the final stretch of our lives, doing our personal equivalent of those golfers that had plenty of time to wait for frost to melt.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Meandering through a consumer-induced fog and following in the footsteps of our parents often restricts our financial independence. If retirement is a cliff at the end of your work life, push it back as far as you can. Staying productive in the marketplace has been proven by study after study to prolong mental capacity and longevity. The key is in securing your financial independence long before retirement so that you can discover your passion, whether it’s highly profitable or not, and make a difference in your world.

The first and most important step in achieving financial independence is personal accountability. Have a problem with the rising income inequality crisis in this country? Get in line. It’s still possible, however, to focus on your specific circumstances and corresponding goals while also advocating for change on a national scale. The worst thing you can do is throw up your hands and cash out.

So how do we start? Turn off the TVs and the smart phones, sit back, close your eyes and daydream. It’s good for you. I’ve gotten on a weird kick lately of wanting to live in Hawaii for six months not long after I turn 50. As unlikely or foolish as that may be, the idea forces me to set a goal and work backward to the present in an attempt to determine if it’s feasible or not. We get so wrapped up in the here and now that we often feel stuck, as if we’re relegated to our current position permanently. That’s the not the case, although as the old saying goes, if we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting what we’ve always gotten.

We don’t get a mulligan in this life. Look at where you are right now, today, and make a plan for where you want to be in 10 years. Only you can determine how much money you spend, how much food you eat and how hard you work. Have the fortitude to sacrifice today for tomorrow. Small changes will get the ball rolling. Is saving the recommended 15 percent laughable given your current situation? That’s understandable, but at least establish a baseline. Start somewhere, anywhere, and create a plan. If you want to sit around a plastic table drinking coffee for hours on end in hopes of playing a round of golf at some point in the day, then have at it. Plan for that goal and accomplish it. But don’t end up there by accident or because you have nowhere else to go.

Greg

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