Myths of Military Retirement

money question

money questionA military pension solves two of a retiree’s biggest problems: decades of inflation and affordable healthcare. Even without a military pension it’s possible to save aggressively on active duty, spend a few years at a bridge career, and retire in your 40s or 50s. The military gives servicemembers the discipline and the perseverance to make it happen.

Today’s guest post comes from Doug Nordman, who’s been happily retired from the military for nearly a decade.

Barely 17% of servicemembers actually retire to a military pension.

When they do, studies indicate that the vast majority of them immediately start a bridge career. Even when military retirees have the option to be financially independent and stop working for a paycheck, they don’t seem to take the choice. The military’s retirement system has a number of advantages, but if so few veterans seek early retirement then you may rightfully hesitate. What are you missing?

One element is the approval of society. Test this yourself by telling a few shipmates, neighbors, or relatives that you’re considering early retirement. Tell them that you’re going to retire from the military and you’re never going to work for a paycheck again.

You won’t get congratulatory handshakes or backslaps. Instead, they’ll think you’re fantasizing! They haven’t even attempted your planning or your hard work for this goal. They might have decided that early retirement is out of their reach, and they may not be happy to hear that you’re doing it when they’re not. It’s far more likely that their “helpful comments” could derail your early-retirement goal.

Before you tackle the objections, consider how you’ll picture yourself for the next few decades. This is your chance to enjoy your freedom and to develop your personal potential. You should feel as excited about the next phase of your life as you were when you joined the military! What’s your personal philosophy about continuing to work? How will you describe yourself? Are you an entrepreneur? A private investor? A surf bum? All of the above? Are you taking a few years off to explore your options, or are you going back to school? Are you going to travel the world or be an at-home parent? You may be able to say, “I’m a retired aviator”, but who are you and what are you doing now? More importantly, are you planning to be this way until you die or will you take it one decade at a time?

Once you think about the big picture, you’re ready to tackle these “myths” of retirement:

“You’re too young to be put out to pasture. You have so much ahead of you!”

Yes, you’re young if you’re retiring before age 65, and one aphorism claims that youth is wasted on the young. Do you really want to “save” retirement for old age, or would you rather learn more about it while you’re young? A few months of early retirement will help you recover from a career of chronic fatigue and decide what you want to do with the rest of your life. Corporate dominance and riches beyond your wildest dreams may not be your goal, but perhaps you’ll discover another way to serve humanity. You’ll still have things that you’ll want to see and do before you’re too old to be capable of achieving them. Travel and triathlons do not improve with age.

“Can’t you find a real job?”

Absolutely, and your military record stands on its own merits. You have the skills that employers will compete for– but a better question is whether you want a “real” job. Do you still care about trying to work your way to the top of yet another chain of command? The military is certainly different from most people’s concept of a real job, and you can seek more alternatives. If you’re financially independent then you can pursue your goals without having to take jobs that don’t interest you. You can also eliminate many of the dis-satisfiers that accompany conventional occupations– commuting, office attire, department meetings, working lunches, late hours, and working weekends.

You’ll have the time to pursue your own activities. You can volunteer, go to school, learn a new avocation, spend more time with family, travel, or entertain yourself. This is a rare opportunity to figure out what you’d like to do with the rest of your life. It doesn’t have to involve a paycheck.

“Who wants to spend all day golfing?”

This question claims that you’ll run out of things to do and get bored. If golf is a fascinating activity that keeps you busy most of the week then enjoy yourself! You can also pick up spare change from tournaments (and your over-optimistic golfing buddies). But like any hobby you should only golf if you enjoy it, and you shouldn’t get tired of it. The solution is to brainstorm your interests and to figure out what you want to do with your time.

“You’ll lose all your friends!”

That may be the case. Military retirement will certainly help you tell the difference between your real friends and your coworkers. If people are put off by your early retirement instead of being happy for you, then perhaps they’re not such good friends after all.

Most retirees keep in touch with only one or two of their former co-workers. You’ll find new interests to share beyond office talk. You’ll have plenty of new free time to spend with family, relatives, neighbors, and old shipmates. Your schedule may be wide open, too, and you’ll be the person they can count on to be available next Tuesday afternoon.

You probably moved around a lot in your military career and you eventually made new friends. Now in early retirement, as you spend more time on activities that you enjoy, you’ll still find new friends.

You’re going to retire NOW, in the middle of all this?!? But you’re up for promotion next year and the team needs you!!”

You may feel that you’re letting down your boss (who recommended you for schools or special recognition) or your wingmen (who would be even more overworked without you), or you may feel like a quitter. You may have been recently promoted with even greater career potential. Maybe you really should stick around for a few more years?

These self-doubt questions are natural and the chain of command may even try to use them to change your mind. No one enjoys personnel changes, and it’s easier for them to hold on to you than to train your replacement– if they can even find your replacement.

Don’t get distracted by these red herrings.

The real question is what’s best for you and your family. Every promotion already recognizes your potential to do the more demanding work, but it’s your decision to continue to live up to that standard. Your chain of command would eventually be reluctant to have your service if your heart was no longer in it. Your family has sacrificed a lot for your career, and they may feel that they’ve supported you and the military for long enough. How much more will they put up with?

Your co-workers, if they’re truly your friends, would much rather see you escape from the asylum than continue to suffer with your fellow inmates. (You’ll always be able to get together to commiserate over a frosty beverage or two.) As for the rest of your peers, they’re tired of competing with you for the next promotion– they’ll be happy that you’ve made room for them to advance!

“You’ll lose all your contacts, and you won’t be able to get a job!”

You’re wasting a valuable asset. Those contacts helped start a career and helped you figure out how to get things done. Don’t throw it all away!

If you feel that you can’t give up your contacts then you may be more interested in a bridge career. If they’re really your friends, however, then you’ll still socialize even when you’re not talking about work. Besides, now they can use your advice on the retirement process.

Although you’re leaving “your” network, you’re also developing a new network of different contacts. You may be volunteering, traveling, or finding new local activities. You’ll meet new people and you’ll have the time to get to know them. Best of all, your true friends from your working days will still be with you.

“You’ll be so bored.”

It’s possible. Retirement means that you’re responsible for your own entertainment. (Don’t expect your spouse to volunteer for this duty!) However, it also means that you get to change the channel and try something different.

As a kid you had interests, hobbies, and activities that kept you going from sunup to sundown. Some days were so busy that you couldn’t find the time for unpleasant things like household chores or part-time jobs. You had no trouble pursuing your own path. Now it’s time to return to that halcyon era!

Many retirees still make lists of goals and things “To Do”. You can be extremely specific (“Run a half-marathon by June 30th”) or more general (“Run a 10K”) and you’re the only scorekeeper. Most retirees also discover that their goals are too aggressive and their deadlines are too soon, so they relax a bit and move in smaller increments over longer times.

During the first few months of retirement you’ll have plenty of problems to solve and activities to complete. Eventually, though, the major decisions are made, the lists settle down, and you’ll be crossing off those goals. Meanwhile you’ve discovered a bunch of new interests and hobbies, and you’ll continue this cycle indefinitely.

“Your spouse [significant other] [kids] [relatives] will never allow it!”

I hope that you’ve discussed retirement with your family and reached a consensus before telling anyone else. Communicating will make or break your plan, and early retirement is an emotionally loaded subject that takes time to accept. Share your financial numbers so that everyone understands the situation (and maybe catches your mistakes). Reassure younger children that you have enough savings and that everyone will help keep an eye on the budget. You also have to reassure your loved ones that you’ll be capable of figuring out your own entertainment.

Doug Nordman is the author of The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement. (All royalties are donated to military charities.) He and his spouse are retired from active duty and the Reserves, and their daughter is starting her own military career. You can read more at

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