Lifestyles in military retirement: Empty nester


There’s a persistent rumor among early retirees that you can only achieve the ambitious ER goal if you eliminate all discretionary spending– including the money “wasted” on raising a family.

The reality is that you have to focus your spending on the things that bring you value. (It’s your discretion, not society’s.) The prime gold standard of “value spending” is Amy Dacyczyn (The Frugal Zealot).  Her newsletters turned into a bestseller about frugally raising six kids on one income.  If Amy could do it for six and still retire early, then any of us should be able to figure it out for one or two. Three or more will test your creativity, but you’d already decided that raising kids brought you value!

When it comes to family, first decide whether kids will bring value to your life– and then put together your budget for raising them. (Hint: Goodwill & garage sales.) You’ll know when your family is the right size for your values (and your budget).

It’s possible that raising kids will help you develop the tools and even more compelling reasons to pursue ER. Raising kids forces you to set priorities, to save money, and to generally behave more responsibly. (You certainly have fewer adult opportunities to behave foolishly and spend frivolously!) While you’re acting like a parent, one day you’ll realize that you could start putting some of that unspent income to good use. (Besides diapers and college funds.) As an ER parent, it’s also a very good idea to be spending more time with those budding adolescents as they approach their teen years. Yeah, I know, it’s not always a pleasant experience, but it’s a relief to be able to spend extra time checking up on with them.

When you’re in the military you spend most of your career training other servicemembers. In our case, both my spouse and I had instructor tours at training commands plus years of watch-team and department training. We’re professionally skilled and extremely experienced at meeting new people, teaching them how to do their jobs, and sending them on their way to succeed in their next assignment. Hey, this was an important mission: we were training our reliefs to take over our duties.

(I know I’m hopping among several seemingly unrelated subjects. Stick with me for a few more paragraphs and I’ll tie this all together.)

Our daughter’s in college now, and we’ve been new members of the empty-nester club for just over a year. It’ll be six more semesters before we “upgrade” to a full membership, but we’re already finding it a fantastic reward for our two decades of preparation and hard work. Not two decades of active duty, but two decades of parenting!

I know that a few parents can be blindsided by empty nest syndrome, and it frequently strikes when you’re already coping with other life changes. But one symptom of empty nest syndrome is identifying too closely with your parenting role while not appreciating all the other roles you may play in your life– spouse, family member, worker, volunteer… you’re not “just a parent”!

If empty nest syndrome becomes a challenge, then it the reasons behind it could affect other areas of your life. For example, how will you handle the identity change from servicemember to civilian? Is your self-image tied too closely to your occupation? You may also need to reflect on how you’ll feel when your working days are over. How will you handle the retirement transition? Do you seek outside yourself for your identity, or are you content with your “inner self”? Can you be responsible for your own entertainment, or do you look to others for that?  “But… but… but what will you DO all day?!?”

In some families, parenting becomes a substitute for (a “distraction from”?) your primary role: spouse! Suddenly the kids are gone, leaving the two of you wondering who you’re living with. You not only have to learn your new role of parent emeritus, but you also have to redefine all over again how to live with that other adult. (Who may also be wondering who the heck they’re stuck with.)  Everything (and I do mean “everything”) can be subject to re-negotiation.  For some the transition is seamless, while for others there’s confusion and turmoil. Regrettably, for a few spouses the empty nest just emphasizes that the marriage has also emptied.

Whoa dude. Your skill at coping with an empty nest may be a harbinger of how you handle your marriage, your retirement, and the rest of your life. “No pressure!”

No worries.  If our first year is any experience, then happily this empty-nester phenomenon is the most fun we’ve had since we were trying to start a family.

Sure, the transition is good practice for refreshing your marriage and designing your retirement. But it’s also a second childhood– with fewer responsibilities and no rules!

Consider this (partial!) list of empty-nester lifestyle choices:

  • No schedules. (“Wanna go surf Maui tomorrow?”)
  • No cooking. (Frozen meals are faster and better than ever!)
  • Pizza night. Any night.  All week long.
  • No more school nights. (Monday-night socializing at the local bar? Sure!)
  • No housecleaning… because nobody’s making it dirty.
  • Stay up as late as you want. Pull an all-nighter (if you still can). In Lahaina.
  • Sleep in next morning. And next afternoon.
  • The entire house becomes a clothing-optional zone. Maybe the yard too.
  • Your utility bills are lower– a lot lower!
  • You can play your own music on your own speakers. You can even dance to it.
  • That Internet bandwidth is all yours again, baby.
  • You can do laundry whenever you want to. Or not. Especially not if you’re enjoying the clothing-optional lifestyle.
  • Refrigerator or keggerator?

But the empty-nester lifestyle isn’t all fun & games– you may pick up some extra “duties”. For example, you should check on those unused bedrooms at least once a month to make sure nothing else has moved in.  You may confront the additional expense of converting an extra bedroom to a new purpose– “home theater” or “longboard storage“.  You might have to cycle through the bathrooms every week or two to keep the sink & tub drains filled and to keep the toilet bowl from drying out.  Sadly, if you no longer have a teen driver in the house then you may have to re-learn how to run your own errands and do your own grocery shopping.

You’ve handled a lot of other transitions in your life, and empty nester can be one of the most enjoyable ones. You’ve already been training your troops to “leave the nest”, and after they moved on you’ve looked forward to the next challenge. Your kids will be just as happy to finish their own training program and move on to their own lives. You’ll know that they’re ready to take the duty, and you can look forward to fulfilling your own new challenges for a while. The empty-nester transition makes a great metaphor for your career transition, and you’ll handle both just fine. Even better, it’ll boost your confidence to tackle the ER challenge.

Thursday’s post: part two of the bloggers (in alphabetical order!) from the USAA Blogger Event. You’ve been waiting all week to hear about the rest of us.

Next week I’m working up yet another post on the drawdown and the proposed changes to military benefits. (Hey, you asked for it. The post, I mean.) I’ll follow that up with a post for military retirees who are wondering whether Medicare & Tricare For Life are enough medical insurance, or if they’ll need more. (Short answers: yep & nope.) After that we might need to come up with another sea story… so many to choose from!

Related articles:
“What, me worry?”
Retiring early– with kids?

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

2 Comments
  1. Hi there! It looks like I had better call first — so you can get a towel — and not just drop by…

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