How Much is Enough?

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I grew up in an extremely religious community in Western Pennsylvania. People came together in worship on Sundays… or sometimes on Monday or Thursday nights depending on when the Pittsburgh Steelers played that given week.

Super Bowl XLIII

Though I now live in Utah, I still practice the Steeler religion. This year has been painful to watch as my underwhelming team slogs through a mediocre season.

Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt is arguably the best defensive player in the NFL. There is no argument that he is the highest paid defensive player in the history of the game after signing a four year $112 million contract prior to this season.

On the other side of the ball, 39 year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is trying to lead one final championship run in his 18th season in the league. Even after taking a $5 million pay cut, he is reportedly making $14 million this season.

Each of these men has more money than a person could reasonably spend in a lifetime. Both  routinely look miserable on the sideline as the team struggles week in and week out.

Focusing on the outlandish salary numbers can make their circumstances difficult to relate to. But they each have to answer the same questions as each of us.

How much is enough? Could making less money make our lives better?

Challenging the Status Quo

When Watt was holding out in the preseason, he was praised by his teammates who were rooting for him to be paid every penny that he is “worth.” There is pressure in the locker room and league wide from the player’s union for each player to get as much as they can. This pushes future salaries ever higher.

At first glance, it seems more noble that Roethlisberger took a pay cut to stay with the team this year. In reality, it was out of necessity.

He previously signed a two year $68 million contract extension in 2019. As good as he is, at the age of 39 he is no longer elite. The team would have likely otherwise cut him to free up his salary to sign players like Watt while staying under the league’s salary cap.

The pressures each of us face, the specifics of our individual situations, and the absolute numbers are obviously far different than those of an elite athlete. Still, there are external (status, appearances, etc.) and internal (ego, desire for more security, etc.) pressures that we all must deal with.

This requires challenging the status quo and following a different path from those that most of the people around us are following if we want to retire early. Doing so requires answering two important questions.

Can Less Actually Be More?

As I watch Steeler games this season, it is clear that Roethlisberger is not playing for the money. He desperately wants to win one more Super Bowl and go out on top to enhance his legacy as one of the all time greats.

Yet I’m curious if he ever considered playing this season for $5 million dollars instead of $15 million. In the NFL, the margin between winning and losing, success and failure, is razor thin. Nine of the Steelers first thirteen games have been decided by one score or less.

Opposing defenders beat him up week in and week out. His sub-par offensive line is regularly outclassed. I can’t help but wonder:

  • Would he be winning more games and having more fun with an extra $10 million offensive lineman protecting him? 
  • Would he be less beaten and bruised in the process?
  • If he gave himself the best chance for one last run at glory and it worked out, could he actually make more money through endorsements and other opportunities in the long run by enhancing his legacy?

Again, though the scale and specifics are different for us, we each have to ask ourselves similar questions. 

  • Could we make our work more enjoyable, cutting out parts of our job we don’t like or reducing sheer hours worked, even if we made less money?
  • Would less stress and more time for other people and things we love make us happier and healthier in the long run?
  • Could focusing on building relationships and social networks rather than earning more money make us both more secure and happy than having a larger portfolio? 
  • By cutting back sooner and earning money more efficiently, could we actually end up with more financial security in the long run?

How Much is Enough?

It’s hard to imagine an extra couple million dollars will make any difference for someone who already has hundreds of millions. The scale is obviously different for us. But the question is not.

Can you retire yet? Answering this question requires you to decide how much is “enough.” There is no easy answer to this question.

Traditionally, the “4% rule” was used to back into “your number.” Experts question whether a 4% safe withdrawal rate is obsolete given current market conditions.

Early Retirement Now’s well researched Safe Withdrawal Rate Series suggests the “safe” number is closer to 3% for early retirees. Recent research from Morningstar suggests that this is true even for traditional retirement time frames for those entering retirement today.

It is always hard for natural savers to make the transition from saver while working to spending down assets in retirement. It is easy to get caught in the perpetual “one more year syndrome.”

Only You Can Decide

These are hard questions. It is vital to think for ourselves.

Don’t lose sight of what is important to you. There are few retirement rules that you have to follow.

Some questions, like how much is enough, don’t have a simple answer. Ask more questions and challenge your assumptions. More isn’t always better.

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[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. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. After achieving financial independence, Chris began writing about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. Chris also does financial planning with individuals and couples at Abundo Wealth, a low-cost, advice-only financial planning firm with the mission of making quality financial advice available to populations for whom it was previously inaccessible. Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He has spoken at events including the Bogleheads and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants annual conferences. Blog inquiries can be sent to Financial planning inquiries can be sent to]

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  1. Western PA native, Steeler fan, and longtime reader of the blog.
    Timely article as I have been wrestling with the same question as I get closer to retirement.
    Am I investing too much? Should we spend and enjoy more now?
    Great position to be in, for which I am very grateful, but no clear answers.

  2. Thank you for the article!

    I grew up in the 70s and was a huge Bradshaw, Harris, Swann, Lambert, Greene fan.
    Now, you have Najee Harris – he sounds like he is as good of a person as he is a player!
    I agree with you re when is enough enough. Should an older player play one more year
    and chance getting seriously hurt (or playing badly and having that year be the year
    that people remember)?

    I live in the Bay Area. As sad as I am to see Buster Posey retire, I am so proud of him
    for retiring on top and while he can still play with his kids. Catching is a hard job.

    We are “semi” retiring at the end of the year. We are bookkeepers to wealthy people
    and are cutting our clients from 6-3. Getting rid of the big ones that take up way too
    much time.

    We have saved and saved and saved. Now that the kids are off the payroll and the house
    is paid off, we don’t need to save anymore. We feel we have enough and will bring
    in enough with our three remaining clients to cover all our bills and have enough to
    have fun.

    1. Congrats SB!

      I’m a big Najee fan. Just hope they can get some help before his shelf life is up. RBs don’t last long in general, and especially when taking the type of beating he is this year.

  3. The “4% Rule” may be great for planning – it is not a good rule to follow for living in retirement. You have to have some way to set a goal and using a 4% (or 3%) is probably a good plan.

    While there may not be an “easy” answer to the question of “How much is enough?”, knowing what you spend today goes a long way toward answering that question. Total income less savings, taxes, work costs is a start. Mortgage, student loans, child rearing costs etc. also possibly don’t add to your needed retirement spending.

  4. I didn’t retire early but after some setbacks I had only 15 years to prepare for retirement, much like a very early retiree. I used many of the same strategies and plans offered by FIRE and was well prepared for retirement at the traditional age.
    We downsized and moved to a more expensive location due to family concerns but the calculators indicated sufficient savings for an indefinite, but long, retirement.
    They were grossly conservative and after 5 years of very comfortable living in retirement our net worth has grown nearly 50% and we have not withdrawn any funds as we have lived on our SS and small pension.
    The strategies of living purposely and the momentum of frugality and saving we learned during our run up to retirement have served us very well.
    I guess our heirs will be surprised and quite pleased.

    1. I appreciate you sharing that experience Luda. I think it’s common for traditional retirees to spend very little from their portfolios b/c Social Security benefits are underestimated.


  5. Great football analogy here! I’ll say one thing, though—when it comes to football, I’m not sure ALL players are rooting for their teammates to get as much money as possible. As you know, there is a hard salary cap, so whatever player X signs for reduces the pot of money left for everyone else. Players tend to root for their teammates but not at the expense of their pocketbooks.

      1. Mark,

        I’m also a Pitt guy, so no way I’m going to acknowledge a PSU alum as the best. Now Aaron Donald… 😉

    1. I thought the same Danny P, but was surprised to not hear that at all in relation to Watt, at least publicly, when I was following that story this summer.

    1. Be flexible so you can address your changing needs ( like physical health and exercise).. This retirement stage of life could be a marathon with medical science prolonging physical life. For financial life, determine your budget for living. Add some insurance for unexpected scenarios. Continue to invest so you can have that buffer between needs and wants. For spiritual life, learn to be grateful. Use your time in activity that help you and the next generation go forward.

    2. I’m fascinated any time I hear a story of an athlete, entertainer, executive, etc. who walks away from the money and prestige of those positions to do something else that interests them more. I recall reading Urschel’s story a few years ago, but have no clue what’s happened to him since.


  6. Thanks for this post. Living in New England, we saw Brady take less than he was worth with understanding the money would be spent on other positions, like receivers, to make team better. BB usually didn’t do that, so perhaps taking less doesn’t mean your team will spend that money on something you think will make the team better. but I get your point.

    As others said, you have to use some withdrawal guidance (4%) to estimate. If you can make it with less, great. Our money is in Fidelity and they have a thorough Retirement Calculator that I’m putting our faith in. And while several advisors told me I can stop work, internally I don’t feel safe enough yet. As stated, all situations differ. Once we pay off the mortgage, loans, and HELOC, then I hopefully will take the leap. Life is short – see movie Nomadland. Time to start enjoying the fruits of our labor.

    1. Thanks for sharing Joseph. It’s tough because even the best calculators and advisors are only as good as the assumptions they use. Since none of us has a crystal ball….

      I’ve had several people recommend Nomadland recently. I’ll check it out!


  7. I have great respect for Christine Benz and her Morningstar colleagues, however, Bill Bergen responds to their recent article and disagrees with their conclusion that the safe withdrawal rate should be 3.3 %.

    Moreover, Michael Kitces, on a podcast interview on Motley Fool Answers on 11/30/21, very diplomatically disagreed with their conclusion as well..

    While running out of money would be bad, not spending nearly what you could, is also undesirable.

    1. I think Kitces is very thoughtful on this subject. That said, no one knows for sure. Bengen’s primary argument on why 4% (or likely more) is still good is that he anticipates inflation will be very low, even if returns are low also. That is certainly still possible given technological advances and slowing population growth, but still these are all just educated guesses and not what we’re seeing at this moment. We all have to make definitive answers, putting our actual money where our mouths are.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  8. Unlike Ben, my work won’t leave a legacy and I’m working mostly for the money. That said, I have to continually remind myself that the ROI of a promotion isn’t worth the extra effort since I will likely retire in 2 years. Any raise won’t last very long so I’m targeting doing just enough to delivery slightly above average value relative to my peers to keep my job until I leave on my terms. It can be deflating to see ambitious “young guns” pass me and get promoted but keeping the big picture in mind keeps me grounded. I haven’t missed a single kid event (even mid-day soccer games), very rarely work after hours and have plenty of time with the family as I ride the career glide path until the end of my working-for-the-money career. It feels like I have the right balance but the ego check of getting passed over can sting sometimes.

  9. Hello from Pittsburgh! Our poor Steelers…they’ve really got to show some grit for the remainder of the season as the AFC North is so tight. Your article is so timely as my spouse and I are getting ready to ‘Barista Fire’ after one more year of part-time career work. We feel like we’ve got a good handle on our current and projected expenses as we’ve been tracking them for a year. Plus our multiple spreadsheets cross-check each other. Enter a family member who asked to piggy-back on our research and ‘finance knowledge’. He didn’t care if we knew his NW and showed us his numbers. This unexpectedly shook our confidence when we learned his NW surpasses ours. We’ve really had to stay the course and remember his budget is not our budget; his plans aren’t ours. The goal isn’t to have the highest number. As you said the goal is defining what is enough for you and focusing on what you value. Then formulating a solid plan to get there.

  10. Quick point to make. Football players’ bodies take a real beating year after year. They will be dealing with the consequences for possibly years to come (ie CTE). What those consequences will be is anybody’s guess and how that will effect their earning power after football is also a big question. A number of years ago the NFL started a “class” for rookies on handling finances because so many pro athletes go broke. I would guess that is one of many reasons players sign for big money when they can.

    1. Agree on all counts Suzie and I don’t begrudge anyone anything, particularly those guys who are putting their health at risk. That was not my point at all. I just find it interesting to ponder things like the value of making more money once you have enough, and how we can apply it to our circumstances.


  11. I can answer the question for TJ – he could take a big pay cut and come to cleveland, playing alongside Jadavion Clowney and Myles Garrett. What a D-Line that would be.

    I’ve counseled lots of folks regarding retirement. However, it always comes back to two items:
    “Without Good Health Nothing Else Matters Much”, and
    “Life is Not A Dress Rehearsal for Retirement – Start Doing All Those Things You Have Dreamed About.”

    In other words, don’t wait for retirement … it may never come. You may be better served by continuing employment, but intentionally enjoing events, experiences, family … everything … starting today (or even yesterday).

    1. Jack,

      You demonstrate a lot of wisdom in your second two paragraphs. And yet you are a Browns fan? So many things in this world just don’t make sense! 🙂

      Thanks for reading and sharing your insights!


  12. Love the article. Very timely as Im officially RE the end of this month after 26+ years at my current employer. Im 53 and was planning to go to 55, just because it sounded like a good number, but my wife and I looked at the finances and we are waaaay past our FI number by a factor of 2x. While I don’t hate my job, I definitely don’t have the same passion for it I used to so decided to go out a bit earlier than planned.

    Funny, I didn’t know you were from PA…I must not be paying attention. Unfortunately, you are a Pitt grad ;-), Me PSU class of 1990.

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