Grumpus Maximus vs. The Golden Albatross

Rage against a flock of seagulls

Hello, I am Grumpus Maximus.  Wait … What?

No, that is not my given name; my parents were far too responsible to name me after the love child of a cartoon character and a Roman Emperor.  Besides, they had no way of knowing the little bundle of joy they swaddled in their arms on the day of my birth would turn into the Fun Sponge who types before you today.  Grumpus Maximus is my Nom de Guerre. If you ever meet me in person, you will immediately know why.  I use a Nom de Guerre in order to deconflict my personal and professional life.  Once I retire, I might chose to reveal my true identity, but for now I feel it is professionally safer to keep my blogging separate from my chosen profession.  You’ll understand if you choose to read onward, or downward, as the case may be.

papa gorilla

                                                            Fun Sponge

One thing that makes me grumpy is spending money.  That is probably a good trait to have as a person obsessed with Financial Independence (FI).  To anyone who tells me cheekily that “you can’t take it with you” I typically retort “what if you could, and more importantly, what if you needed it?  After all, the boatman required two silver coins to cross the River Styx, right?”  It makes me feel better when a puzzled look comes across their face … but I digress.

Numismatic Museum of Athens - Νομισματικό Μουσείο

            Time to pay the Boatman

I am a 40 something US military officer with 18 years of active duty service under my belt.  I’ve spent over four years of that career either deployed or stationed in the Middle East, and another three years stationed in Europe.  I have three camp followers: Grumpus Minimus 1 and 2 (collectively called Grumpus Minimi — pronounced mi-nee-my); and of course the love of my life … Mrs. Grumpus (who might also be the love that will end my life if I poke too much fun at her in this blog).  Together we make a lovely, or at least a loud, Grumpus Familias.  We are currently stationed in the tropical paradise that is Hawaii, and if you know anything about Hawaii, you know it is way more expensive than the mainland US.  That extra cost makes me even grumpier.

Some other things you might want to know about me: I have two degrees in the liberal arts; which is a nice way of saying that I have no formal education in financial issues.  I am not an economist, accountant, or financial planner.  What I’ve become over the years is an expert in tracking my own money.  Even for the short 18 month period that I used a “Wealth Manager”, I never stopped tracking what was happening with my money.  For better or worse, I am also a (nearly) lifelong DIY investor.  It has provided me many hard learned lessons along the way.  Finally, I am on the tail end of a two year personal financial education journey in which I’ve read over 30 books, consumed uncounted blog posts, and listened to thousands of hours of financial podcasts.  I’ve probably put more effort into this one issue that I ever did for either of my two degrees.

Unbeknownst to most of my colleagues and peers, in the spring of 2016 I suffered a mental breakdown and was diagnosed with mixed depressive-anxiety disorder.  Post-traumatic stress from two specific events in my career was (and still is) the cause of my depression.  My anxiety was (and is) mostly caused by my chosen profession.  I no longer enjoy the military.  Somewhere in the previous seven years it stopped being a calling and turned into … just a job … an extremely demanding job.  By 2016 I wanted to resign my commission.

However, if you know anything about military pensions for personnel who joined in the late 1990s like I did, it is an all or nothing defined benefit pension bestowed at no less than 20 years of service (assuming you are not medically discharged prior to 20).  I had worked too hard and sacrificed too much to walk away from what would be over a million dollars worth of retirement pay (assuming I lived a normal length life).  Thus, I felt like I was trapped until my 20 years were up.

What could I do?  It felt like a Golden Albatross had been hung around my neck.  I did not feel like I could make it another day, let alone four more years, in the military.  But I also felt like I could not simply quit, forgo all those retirement benefits, and start a new career with two kids and wife depending on me.  I was just going to have to tough it out to at least 20 years.  But then what? Assuming that the pay from a 20 year retirement was not enough, I would then have to start a second career (ideally as far away from the military as possible).  What could that be though?  Was it even realistic to expect that I could start an entirely different career in my mid-40s?  This post- military career linked anxiety was driving me (literally) crazy, and led to a Mid-Life Crisis (MLC) centered on the question of what I would do if/when I chose to leave the military.

Wow.  Seeing all of this in words makes it sound insurmountable.   It wasn’t.  I’m thankful I did not punch any work colleagues, cheat on my wife, or buy a red sports car.  And while I did not drink myself into stupors, stop showing up for work, or contemplate suicide; I was deeply unhappy and angry, and it started to impact my family.  This led me to seek help.

Thanks to therapy, a mild amount of medication, hard work, and a lot of introspection, I am able to stay on top of my depression these days.  However, my anxiety fueled MLC required a more unique solution.  I found the answer, or more accurately, I stumbled across the answer to the MLC during my aforementioned two year journey to increase my personal financial literacy.  This answer solved my anxiety and MLC almost overnight when I realized its implications.  So what was, or is, the answer you ask?

Simple.  Through my studies I realized that with a few minor changes and sacrifices between 2016 and my military pension retirement point, I could accumulate enough wealth that, in conjunction with my pension and benefits, I would never have to “work” another job again … if I so choose.  In other words, I could reach Financial Independence (FI) by my military retirement point.

I cannot describe the feeling of relief that realization provided me.  It was and is a powerful piece of knowledge.

You might be wondering how I could expect to accumulate enough wealth in only four years to realistically assume I could never work again, even with the generous benefits provided by the military.  This is a fair question.  Maybe back in the 1950s through the 1970s a person could work a job for 20 – 30 years, not save a penny, and still expect to live comfortably off their defined benefit pension.  But pensions (of any sort) in the US are a rare things these days reserved mostly for (often crummy) government jobs (local, state and federal); the ever decreasing number of blue collar union jobs; major sports leagues; and large bureaucratic international organizations like the UN

Mrs. Grumpus’s Retirement Plan: Pro ball for one of our Grumpus Minimi

or International Monetary Fund.  Other than maybe sports stars, I do not think anyone could start saving only four years prior to a pension point, and find themselves in a financial state to retire — no matter how good their pension.  Certainly I could not have done it.

Fortunately though, and without any real intention, I had already placed myself and family on a path to FI during my first 16 years in the military.  I was always a good saver when single, and when Mrs. Grumpus and I married, we became good savers.  We also proved to be at least mediocre investors which, as I will explain in future posts, helped.  We got financially lucky at a few points along the way too — which did not hurt.  That is not to say we didn’t make financial mistakes, because we’ve made plenty — which I will also share in future posts.  In reality though, the four years between my breakdown and retirement was all that we needed to put us over the top savings wise … if we chose to make the sacrifice and effort.  However, the savings only works in conjunction with the pension.  The key to all of this is the defined benefit pension provided by the military.

So only a few more months of dedicated study provided me the knowledge I needed to effectively plot a path to FI using the benefits of my pension as the base upon which my future and sanity is built.   With only a few (now enacted) adjustments, I can achieve the goal of never “working a real job” again while still providing a great life for my family.  This provides me the piece of mind I need to function, and subsequently my job has become a lot more bearable.  In fact I committed to stay until at least 21 years of service in order to transfer my Post-9/11 GI bill to my children.  This will further ensure that once we achieve FI we will stay that way.

With all that said, I do not feel like I should just sit on this powerful personal insight.  As we travel this final part of our (mostly unintentional) path to FI, I want to share my knowledge.  And not only with other military members.   Anyone who feels like they too have a Golden Albatross around their neck could benefit from reading this blog.  Anyone who is eligible for a defined benefit pension could easily implement their own goal to achieve FI.  Our path is not only replicable, but easily built and improved upon.

With that I welcome you to the Grumpus Maximus Blog… please enjoy, participate, and provide feedback. There is always more to learn, and together we might even be able to help each other.