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Outside the Box

Jan. 25, 2020, 1:37 p.m. EST

Whether retiring at 40 or 70, the challenges are surprisingly similar

Both FIRE and traditional retirement involve uncertainty and finding purpose

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By Chris Mamula

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Tax planning for traditional retirement

My parents ran into a similar issue in the early years of their retirement. My mom is a few years younger than my dad. They had to be careful to not generate more taxable income than necessary by performing Roth conversions while she was buying health insurance on the open marketplace. Once she reached Medicare eligibility, they had only a small window for creative tax planning before my dad had to start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) and Social Security.

Now my parents are both receiving Social Security benefits and my dad is receiving RMDs from his tax-deferred retirement accounts. Any further withdrawals or Roth conversions from tax-deferred accounts are taxed at their highest marginal rates.

Taking larger withdrawals or performing Roth conversions at traditional retirement age can have additional adverse financial impacts. Increasing taxable income can affect how much of their Social Security income is taxed . If you are required to take larger distributions from tax-deferred accounts, this income may also affect your Medicare premiums .

Tax-planning implications

I stand behind the idea that the tax code is generally very favorable to early retirees. Most higher earners who are saving enough to retire early should utilize tax-deferred investing options over Roth options.

However, some nuance is required. We need to look at our overall picture, including the size of our tax-deferred accounts, the period of time over which we can take money from them and other tax implications we may create by taking money from the accounts in the future.

I assumed we’d be able to pay little if any tax on our tax-deferred accounts as we gradually converted them to Roth accounts over time. As our early retirement has morphed into semi-retirement, that is looking unlikely.

The overlay of the ACA subsidies on the tax code until Medicare eligibility complicates tax planning during early retirement or semi-retirement years. Spreading tax-deferred income over these years using Roth conversions may be challenging.

Taxation of Social Security benefits and potentially increasing Medicare costs for those with higher incomes complicates tax planning in traditional retirement.

This is particularly challenging for married couples with an age difference. They may have a small window, or no time at all, where they’re not impacted by at least one of these issues.

I now have a greater appreciation for tax-rate diversification. I’ll continue looking for opportunities to get money into our heatlh savings acccounts, Roth IRAs and taxable accounts during this phase of our lives when earnings are lower. In doing so, we’ll give ourselves more flexibility in any given year going forward.

Read: 5 steps to unwinding the ghosts of your investment mistakes

Finding purpose

Darrow recently wrote about finding your purpose after retirement or financial independence . My parents’ traditional retirement and our FIRE lifestyle are quite different, but this struggle is common.

I first started thinking about this issue when I was still working as a physical therapist. I recall a consultation with a recently retired physician who was coming to see me as a new patient. Our paths had crossed several times previously when he was practicing. He was a jovial guy.

I greeted him and eagerly asked him how he was enjoying retirement. I fully expected him to tell me how much he loved it and all that he was doing with his newfound freedom. Without hesitation, he replied that he hated it.

He had lost his identity and had no idea what to do with his time. He started spending hours at the gym every day to deal with his boredom and ended up tearing his rotator cuff. This shoulder injury, caused by his excessive exercise routine, is why he was there to see me. Now his one source of activity and joy was lost. He felt even more depressed.

I can’t help but struggle with the idea that I could, and possibly should, be doing something bigger with my life.

At the time, I was moving full speed ahead toward early retirement. I was certain that freedom from a job was the ticket to a happier life. The conversation took me aback.

I talked to my dad, who at the time was in the process of transitioning out of the small photography business he had spent nearly 30 years building, about my interaction with the doctor. My dad related to the doctor’s feelings.

Purpose in traditional retirement

My dad recognized the need to create a new identity and purpose for himself in retirement. He has dedicated a substantial portion of his time to service projects. His most consistent and involved endeavor has been serving as a Court Appointed Special Advocate ( CASA ) for children the court has removed from their parents’ home and placed in the care of a relative or in non-kinship foster care. He is also involved in his church’s assistance ministry and occasionally volunteers at a soup kitchen.

It’s been interesting and inspiring to watch him reinvent himself in his 60s and into his 70s. Still, I sense a void in his life, particularly since my family has moved across the country.

My mom has probably struggled with the transition from career to retirement less. Less of her identity had been tied up in her work. Her primary identity has always been that of a caregiver.

She was a stay-at-home mom for a period. Later, she became the primary caregiver for both of her parents as well as a few of my dad’s aging relatives in their later years. She then stepped in and played a huge role in my daughter’s formative years.

Purpose With FIRE

Figuring out your purpose can be an even bigger struggle for high achievers who achieve financial independence early. My wife and I recognize and appreciate the privileged position we are in.

The beauty of achieving financial independence early in life is that you get to decide what your life looks like. The challenge of achieving financial independence early in life is that you have to choose what your life looks like.

When considering leaving my career, I thought a lot about what I would do with my time. I didn’t think I’d ever get bored, and I was right. If anything, I feel busier than ever.

But having your time occupied and feeling fulfilled are not the same thing. I am able to be a much better father and spend far more time with my daughter. But she’s in school seven hours each day.

I am able to contribute to the world through my writing and volunteer work. But those activities encompass a couple hours each day at most.

We’re conditioned to structure our lives around work. I can’t help but struggle with the idea that I could, and possibly should, be doing something bigger with my life.

This struggle has likely been even greater for my wife. Like the doctor and my dad who associated their identity with their profession and business, she has built an identity around achievement and being successful in her career.

I’ve written about her decision to continue working for the economic benefits and the ability to get health care for our family. But the biggest reason she continues to work is that she doesn’t know what she really wants to do next.

Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. This was first published on the blog “Can I Retire Yet?

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