A few weeks ago on my podcast I had a momentary insight: how could Aaron Clarey write a book about the best way to retire when he simultaneously has based much of his work on the philosophy of ‘enjoying the decline’? This philosophy is somewhat fatalistic; it instills feelings of powerlessness: it’s all going to go to hell anyway so why bother doing anything about it?
But planning for your retirement is the opposite of this mindset. Had Clarey got his wires crossed? He challenged me to find out for myself, and so I read his book, Poor Richard’s Retirement, in an effort to discover whether or not my suspicion was correct.
The common thread that runs through all of Clarey’s books, as well as his articles, videos, and podcasts, is that of avoiding the common and costly mistakes that the vast majority of people make over the course of their lives. The philosophy of enjoy the decline is also based on this premise. While the USA goes to hell in a hand basket a few people will have planned for that eventuality and set up their lives so as to be as minimally inconvenienced as possible. Some will even figure out a way to benefit from the situation; the ultimate example of being anti-fragile.
Planning for your retirement is the best way to ensure this survival tactic. You can hardly place a bet on counting on a government pension in a few decades time, not with the trillions of dollars of debt that has been so maliciously generated through money printing and a vast bureaucratic machine. Your ability to plan for your retirement and to follow it through could be the difference between life or death.
A lot of writers feel the need to spin one idea that could be covered in 20 pages into a 500 page monolith. This forces the reader to pick through the text in an effort to find the very limited gold amongst the dross. This is often because the writer in question didn’t have enough material for a book in the first place and so attempted to hide this fact by excessively padding it out.
Clarey is not one of those writers. He has good ideas and he sticks to the absolute minimum to pass those ideas along. The book clocks in at a paltry 140 pages – I read it in two brief sittings.
The first chapter lays out a sound argument for just why traditional retirement plans aren’t going to mathematically cut it any more. But even if the current models did stack up, it appears that the vast majority of Americans who are nearing retirement age aren’t even remotely close to what they’re going to need to live out their twilight years on a stinking beach in Fort Lauderdale. They simply haven’t saved enough.
But retirement isn’t just about saving; it’s about spending too. In fact, as Clarey argues, the spending part is more important than the saving part. If you are able to live off less while you’re saving for retirement it means that you’ll be able to save more. But equally, once you have saved more and have decided to retire you will need less money than you thought because you have already successfully reduced your spending habits.
It’s a double whammy that is so obvious when you read it, yet the majority of people do the opposite. They spend too much and don’t save enough for their retirement and then discover that they are not even close to being able to meet their inflated monthly budgets once they have retired.
Clarey breaks this all down over the remainder of the book. But he also offers another idea that is revolutionary for modern times: do you even want to retire? In the past, people didn’t retire. They kept doing what they’d always done until they died. This may sound unappealing if you’re working in a factory that makes tinned spaghetti, but if you have managed to carve out a niche for yourself and you enjoy what you do then why retire? Remember, all of this advice is about not following the great unwashed.
It can even be downright unhealthy to retire, particularly for men.
As long as men have work to do, we do fine. We have a purpose in life, we get up in the mornings with a day’s work ahead of ourselves, and this gives us a reason to live. It’s all tied up, I believe, in our inherent nature as providers and all that goes with it. When that activity stops earlier than expected — at 62, most of us have at least fifteen or even twenty more years to live — subconsciously we still feel that we are capable of working, providing and in short contributing to ourselves and others.
But when that ends, it’s as though a switch is turned off somewhere and our brains simply say, “Oh well, that’s it,” and we die. It may be that illness has been kept at bay through our industry and now given an empty playing field, so to speak, it takes over; or it may be that we do things that are more dangerous (the study mentions driving more as one activity), or perhaps we working dogs just feel useless and our existence, pointless.
Men are working dogs, but we’re also social creatures as well. And this is the aspect of Clarey’s book that is most surprising; his examination and evaluation of the human relationships that we each have that give greater depth and meaning to our lives. You could retire with a billion dollars but if you haven’t got a friend in the world and everyone that you meet hates your guts after 5 minutes it’s not going to be particularly pleasant for you.
Work on your human relationships, lower your material consumption, save more, spend less, and be more content with what you have. It’s revolutionary stuff I know, but we live in revolutionary times.
If there is one aspect to the book that I think could be improved upon it is the subject of your health as you get older. It’s useless to carefully plan for your retirement if at the relatively sprightly age of 65 you’re a feeble old fart who can barely get out of bed in the morning. Apart from the economics Clarey covered the social and philosophical aspects of what you want to plan for your retirement, but he left out your physical condition as you get older. This is arguably of greater importance than anything – you can’t spend if you’re dead, feeble, or demented.
Perhaps in the resources that he provides at the end of the book he might also consider adding a link to the Starting Strength site; maybe a link to one of Rippetoe’s articles on the effect that barbell training has on aging.
Still, it’s a minor quibble in what is a very valuable book. And the sooner that you pick it up and start implementing some of its concepts then the better off you’ll be able to really kick back and enjoy that decline. And yes; I stand corrected.