Early vs. Delayed Retirement: Which Path Is Harder?

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 ย 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 delicately 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?

Photo Credit: IvanWalsh.com


  1. 1


    My path was early retirement and I didn’t feel the pain of the extra work because motivation gave me extra strength. I get that you may like your job and not mind taking the scenic route, however you never know what can happen. You can be unable to work from your 50s onward, you may have to support your spouse’s parents, a disabled kid, etc. so better have a cushion anyway and be able to choose whether you want to keep working or quit.

  2. 2


    And many linger at the bottom of the mountain and wait for someone to carry them to the top!

    I think there’s a flaw in your physics argument that climbing straight up a mountainside uses the same energy as switchbacking up, but I’m not smart enough to identify it. But anyone who’s climbed a mountain both ways knows it at least feels easier if the trail is switchbacked. Why is that?

    • 3

      Len Penzo says

      You’re right, Kurt; taking many switchbacks is easier — on a per-step basis. Zigzagging allows you to climb the mountain more gradually, so you end up expending less force with every step you take. In essence, zigzagging is a management decision to reduce “the pain” by spreading the entire workload required to get to the top over a longer distance.

      However, when all is said and done, and all else being equal, the total work to get to the top is the same (assuming the trails start at the same point).

    • 4


      Kurt’s right, there is a flaw, you forgot to make your assumptions explicit:

      Assume a frictionless mountain…

      Now this actually comes to the opposite conclusion of Kurt’s: it takes more work to go up the switchback way than straight up because you spend more time/effort/distance fighting friction. But energy is cheap, and rappelling gear is not. The efficiency of our muscles also isn’t a flat function, so in the real world power (rate of work done) also matters.

  3. 6


    Direct or zigzag is not the issue! Is it part of a grand plan? I put together a goal and a plan at 31 years old to achieve financial freedom before 40 years old and achieved it by 38 years old. I invested in income property and built it into a business. It was direct and zigzag, but I had a plan!

  4. 7

    Frugal Pediatrician says

    You are very wise. I have been reading these extreme early retirement blogs and have returned to your very sane one. I think somewhere in the middle is good. We are a dual income physician family, and save about 50% of our aftertax pay in retirements and investments. We are doing the private school route, but otherwise live very frugally and spent much less than our cohorts. We are set to not have to work in 10 years and maintain our standard of living, but at that point I think I will leave my HMO job and finally do some medical mission work. I work in a relatively underserved area, so have not completely sold out but I know there is much more I could do elsewhere after the kids are all settled and off to college.

  5. 8

    Frank A. Finazzo says

    Here is where the logic breaks down: going straight up is inherently more risky (stress/ burnout/ health concerns) than taking the slow and steady path to the top.

  6. 10


    I am not sure which path is harder, but to each their own, right? That said, I have a pensioned job which is great…but it has become very hard to try the early retirement route….I am trying viciously, though!

  7. 12


    Definitely the earlier path. Two flaws as I see it with a later approach; particularly if we are talking about someone not actively investing for retirement until their late 30s/early 40s. First, the later you start the less benefit you get from compound interest. There comes a point where an older person cannot contribute enough to match what they would have had they started earlier. Second, working later is not necessarily a viable option for many because of health related reasons or demands of the job (e.g. physical requirements) that they can no longer maintain. Also, even though age discrimination is illegal, studies show that older workers have a harder time getting back into the work force than their younger counterparts. I would say wait until later at your own peril.

  8. 16


    Most certainly, lower intensity and longer time. There is a gain that I appreciate – one can appreciate the views on the way :). I still plan to reach the summit a bit earlier but with no dramatic sacrifice and loads of mid-life wisdom.

  9. 17


    I really like to retire early, so that I could enjoy life better. But I do agree with you that each path really has its pros and cons, and that it all depends to an individual what will he choose.

  10. 18


    There are some experiences that I’ve had in my 20s that will never, ever be the “same” if I repeat these in my 30s, 40s and 50s. For example: I can travel through South America, but the experience of doing it at age 25 is inherently going to be different than the experience of doing it at age 45, due to the people that you meet, your personal tolerance for discomfort, the changing globalized world, and other external factors.

    Because of that, I advocate for taking lots of mini-retirements or mini-sabbaticals throughout one’s life, rather than working yourself to the grind in your 20s and sacrificing other experiences you could have during those years. I think its better to alternate periods of intense work with intense play … like interval training.

  11. 19


    I’ll take the path in between those two. I think it’s incredibly important to start young. I’m doing a lot to ensure my future financial security. But I’m not planning on rock climbing up the north face of a mountain by saving 50% of my salary just to stop working at 35 or 40. I would rather make a concerted effort to save and invest well, enjoy my work and my life, and live well for my entire lifetime. I promise I’m not slacking though. :)

  12. 20


    I absolutely love this analogy – it brings the choice to life in such an understandable and vivid way! I made it to the top, and I guess I did an “in between” path – but in hindsight, I *might not have* if I would have read an analogy like this in my 20s. If I had, I would have had a greater understanding of the longer term implications of decisions I was making. I bet I would have been more explicit in my thinking, and chosen a shorter, steeper path – instead of “backing into” the path that I did. Nicely done, I’m passing this along!


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