Early vs. Delayed Retirement: Which Path Is Harder?

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Not too long ago, I was driving my family along the foothills of Southern California, at the base of the magnificent San Gabriel mountains.

Believe it or not, the San Gabriels top out at over 10,000 feet; and while the panorama from the top of Mount Baldy is stunning, I think the view from the base of the range is arguably even more impressive as you cast your eyes up its steep and craggy face.

Anyway, on this particular day, I asked my kids and the Honeybee to gaze up to the summit from our position at the base of the mountain. I then asked them this question:

If you were asked to get to the top of Mount Baldy via one of two hiking paths, which route do you think would require the most work: Path A, which leads straight up the face; or Path B, which zigzags from one side to the other?

Both Matthew and Nina insisted that the obvious answer was straight up the face. They both argued that the steeper path would require more physical effort, but it would also allow them to get to the top quicker.

The Honeybee, on the other hand, was absolutely certain it was the zigzag route. She said that’s because the winding trail would take significantly longer to complete, even though the trek was easier.

When my family finished making their cases, I broke the bad news to the kids: Taking a direct path straight to the top is not the hardest route.

Needless to say, upon hearing that the Honeybee started gloating — until I informed her that she too was, ahem … wrong. (For the first time ever.)

It turns out that zigzagging is, technically, no harder.

From a purely scientific viewpoint, neither path has an advantage over the other because they both require the same amount of work to get to the top!

This makes sense if you consider that the equation for calculating work is:

Work = Force x distance

Without getting into too much detail, as long as both trails to the summit start from the same point, the altitude change — and therefore the work required to reach the peak — will be identical. Ultimately, the “correct” path comes down to a personal decision on how much force you want to expend with each step on the journey.

So why am I sharing this little story with you?

Well, the same principle also applies to everyone who is managing their retirement strategy.

Some people prefer to charge straight ahead, making steep sacrifices in their twenties and thirties by working multiple jobs and saving a large proportion of their income early in life so they can retire as early as possible.

Of course, some people don’t have the means or desire to take such an aggressive path and they end up taking a more deliberate route instead, slowly building up their nest eggs and delaying retirement until their late fifties, sixties — and even seventies — in exchange for a less-aggressive workload and greater up-front discretionary spending power.

Each path ends up at the same location; both have their pros and cons.

With that in mind, which path is right for you?

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