What would you do if you knew with absolute certainty that you would die in exactly 10 years time. It doesn’t matter how you know this or what you will die of; in 3652 days you will drop dead.
This was the thought experiment proposed by SavingNinja. The one thing he asked of participants was for a stream of consciousness outpouring of thoughts rather than a carefully polished article. Here goes…
Campfire meals are an adventure
In the early autumn twilight, a half dozen boy scouts sat around a smoky campfire, eagerly anticipating a hot meal after a long day of bushwalking.
A conservative estimate put the total distance travelled at around the length of an Olympic marathon. Which sounds like an impressive performance. Except the truth of the matter was we had gotten hopelessly lost during a brief after-breakfast stroll, and spent the entire day attempting to find our way back to the campsite.
An excited yelp echoed from the nearby creek. We dashed over to investigate, arriving just in time to witness one of the older boys triumphantly lifting a grocery bag full of beer cans out of the cool flowing water.
The impressively moustachioed scoutmaster ambled over and clouted the older boy over the ear, before promising the liberated beer would be well taken care of.
Returning to our cooking fire, we were briefly delighted to discover the stew was warm enough to eat.
At the best of times campfire cooking is a bit hit and miss. Inexperienced chefs, and the absence of refrigeration, meant that more than a few dishes are served with a free episode of the squirts shortly afterwards.
A simple survival system had evolved: the youngest boy volunteered to sample the cooking.
After 10-15 minutes, if they hadn’t died or experienced any spontaneous gastric eruptions, then the remainder of the group were somewhat reassured that the food was safe to eat.
Everyone looked expectantly at me.
I protested that the newest member of the troop was younger than me, so he should sample the food.
It turned out that while we had been exploring the nearby bushland, the rest of the troop had played a game of capture the flag. The new boy had apparently stepped on a red belly black snake, who didn’t much appreciate being disturbed while sunbaking.
The boy had been rushed to hospital, exhibiting many of the same symptoms that my campfire cooking colleagues now hoped to avoid by volunteering me to sample the food.
I spooned a generous portion of the stew into my bowl. It smelled great, and my stomach growled in anticipation of a hot meal.
Scooping up a spoon full, I cautiously blew over the steaming stew to cool it down. With a resigned shrug I closed my eyes, and shovelled it in my mouth.
It had a hearty and surprisingly rich flavour.
And was a bit spicy.
Make that a lot spicy.
Oh my god, that is hot!
My eyes watered.
My nose streamed.
My mouth is on fire!
My tongue felt like it was melting.
Without thinking, I foolishly swallowed rather than spat out the mouthful of molten misery.
It felt like lava was sliding down inside my chest.
I grabbed my canteen and drained it in one long skol.
It didn’t help. Not even a little bit.
I threw the bowl aside and ran past my startled troop mates towards the creek.
Skidding to my knees, I shoved my whole head in the cool water.
It didn’t help either.
Half in, half out of the creek, I curled up into the fetal position and wanted to die.
I was certain that I would imminently, but not soon enough to make this horrible burning feeling subside. My body felt as though I was being rapidly barbecued from the inside out.
“How do you like my Ghost Pepper chillis, boy? I thought your stew could do with some spicing up!” came the mocking voice of the scoutmaster. I couldn’t see him through all the streaming tears and snot, but could hear him laughing as he popped the top on one of the stolen beers.
I promised myself that I would pay the evil bastard back. With interest.
10 years to live
When I read about the topic of this thought exercise, I must confess that the first thing that crossed my mind was running the clock down until there was no fear of consequence. I could distribute comeuppance to any who had sufficiently wronged me to warrant inclusion on my shit list.
The chilli loving scoutmaster.
The “bills included” landlord who turned out to be a bailiff magnet, having never paid a single bill.
The patent troll.
And so on.
Then I remembered a Jeffrey Archer story I read long ago called “Not a penny more, not a penny less”. The basic story goes that a con man fleeces a collection of naïve investors out of a bunch of money. They vow to have their revenge, but to do so in such a subtle way that the con man doesn’t realise he himself is being conned. They promise not to stop until they have recovered their full investment, not a penny more, not a penny less.
With a 10 year run-up, I could certainly come up with some diabolically clever means of distributing natural justice and righting past wrongs!
Then I slapped myself upside the head for indulging silly fantasies about wasting 10 years of my precious time on a bunch of dickheads I have long since left behind.
Destiny: Blessing or curse?
What does knowing the date of your death actually change?
It removes some upside uncertainty, knowing that you won’t live past a certain date.
However there is no guarantee you will make it to this theoretical death date. The risk of being hit by a bus or abducted by aliens at some point before then remains.
This knowledge potentially removes the temptation to procrastinate and postpone living until “someday”. Time has always been a precious scarce commodity, the imposition of a hard end date merely reinforces that fact.
Except 10 years is an awkward period of time.
Too long for a non-stop holiday.
Too short for the magic of compounding to have much effect.
Too arbitrary to trust that the market gods will benevolently provide a bull market wave to carry you towards the finishing line.
Investment timescale cure?
It potentially changes investment timescales.
Those who champion the infamous baby boomer “S.K.I. holiday” (Spend the Kid’s Inheritance) approach to life may ramp up their spending. As their motto proclaims: “you can’t take it with you!”.
Those who worship at the altar of “safe” withdrawal rate funded retirements, covering their lifestyle costs by incrementally spending down their capital, may also be able to ramp up their outgoings. Their accumulated hoard need no longer last the 30 years envisaged by Bengen, nor indefinitely as evangelised by some of the more optimistic members of the FIRE movement.
Here is the thing
I am already conscious that time is both precious and finite, which resulted in some very different work/life balance choices.
My finances have been organised such that the free cash flow generated by investments already covers many of my lifestyle costs. This mitigates a multitude of issues, ranging from pension age restrictions, to worrying about exhausting my capital when I’m too old (or my skills too dated) to do anything about it.
A lifelong goal has been to attain a financially secure position, capable of supporting my immediate family and being in a position to assist loved ones should the need arise. This has proven immensely valuable over the years, and I have little reason to believe the future will resemble a rollercoaster ride any less than the past has done.
Therefore I have no plans to spend down my capital, which means my financial approach would change very little in the knowledge of my pending demise. One thing I would do is take action to mitigate inheritance taxes, to prevent the vampiric tax authorities from having a second bite of my already after-tax invested earnings!
15 November 2028
Let’s consider what my world looks like 10 years from today: 15 November 2028.
My younger son will still be in high school. That means many of the current constraints of school holiday travel times and durations will have remained in place throughout the 10 year period of this thought experiment.
My elder son should recently finished university. Hopefully he will have found a decent job. Possibly he may even have moved out!
My lady wife would likely still be doing her rewarding (but alas, not particularly financially so) job. I suspect the first time she would ever entertain the notion of ceasing full-time work is from the other side of the grass!
All going well she will not (yet) have grown tired of me.
Interesting, yet irrelevant
That leads me to the anticlimactic, yet strangely heartening, conclusion that even knowing with certainty how many days my life had left to run, there is very little I would be doing differently. The knowledge would, for the most part, fall into the “interesting, yet irrelevant” category.
If I do happen to go off-air towards the end of summer 2028, don’t be alarmed. I may have decided to reminisce about weapons-grade chilli peppers with my former scoutmaster.
To hear some alternative points of view check out the other responses to SavingNinja’s thought experiment:
- Caveman @ DitchTheCave
- Corinna @ InspiringLifeDesign
- Dr FIRE
- Marc @ EarlyRetirementPlanning
- Ms ZiYou
- Steel Kitten
What would you do with the knowledge you had 10 years left to live?