What If You Can’t Retire Yet?
Can I Retire Yet? It is pretty safe to assume that if you are reading this blog you have an interest in answering that question. There are common themes that cause people to start asking.
Many of us feel the tension of never having enough time for the things we want to do while working. We burn out from constant demands of high stress careers. Life events, both positive and negative, cause us to examine whether we are spending life the way we truly want.
The question may have been thrust upon you by an employer who decided that your services were no longer required. Or maybe health issues forced you out of the workforce earlier than expected, or are making life unbearable while working.
You may badly want to retire. Yet when you face financial reality, the answer to the retirement question is a clear no.
For others, the answer is unclear. You need to estimate health care expenses, your life span, taxes, future investment returns, interest rates, and inflation over decades to make an informed retirement decision. But none of these factors is knowable with certainty.
Miscalculation in any of these areas can cause drastically divergent retirement outcomes. The longer the retirement horizon, the greater the impact of even small miscalculations. This can cause people to become trapped with stress, anxiety, and fear.
Many of you either cannot retire yet or aren’t sure whether or not you can. So where do you go from here? Can this be a good thing?
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Not long after beginning my career, I started to burn out. I started flirting with the idea of early retirement, but didn’t consider it a realistic possibility.
In early fall 2012, my cousin passed away in her early 40’s after losing a battle with cancer. A month later, my daughter was born. These events, occurring in such proximity, shook me to my core. They made me question what really was important in life.
I became acutely aware that I was not spending my time the way I wanted. I began getting serious about retirement planning, more sure than ever that early retirement was what I wanted.
Reality set in soon. A quick analysis of our finances made me realize that retirement was not possible without drastically altering our lifestyle or taking on massive financial risk. Neither was a desirable alternative.
This was initially depressing. I felt trapped and wanted out of the life I was living, but didn’t see a way.
Sometimes You Get What You Need
I continued to save aggressively and read everything I could about retirement planning. My initial strategy was to accelerate the early retirement process. As my learning continued, I began to see many challenges inherent in traditional retirement.
Traditional retirement is not the panacea for life’s problems I originally envisioned. The idea of living life constrained to a budget was unappealing. I also realized that I was running away from things I didn’t like in life without any idea where I was actually going.
In retrospect, not being able to retire — as I so badly wanted — was a good thing. It gave me what I needed — time to ask better questions and seek better alternatives. This allowed me to improve my life while designing a more desirable long-term future. I encourage you to do the same.
What Do You Really Want?
A great place to start your retirement planning is to set aside some time to think about what you really want in life. It can be valuable to journal or discuss this with trusted advisors.
I thought I wanted retirement. After digging deeper below the surface, I found I wanted much more than traditional retirement could provide.
A desire to regain control of my time is what initially drove me to seek early retirement. I wanted freedom to spend time on the things I found most important without being constrained by someone else’s schedule. This didn’t seem possible while practicing physical therapy. I also wanted to be done with the ever growing administrative demands of my job. To these ends retirement seemed, and still is, very desirable. However, time and freedom are not the only things I value.
Happiness is about living life in alignment with your personal values. I also value financial prosperity, serving and helping others, personal growth and development, and accomplishing personal goals. These values are all compatible with work. Some are actually more elusive if you limit yourself to a traditional retirement, defined as not working at all.
Related: Becoming a Beginner in Retirement
Once you are clear on what you want out of life, you can start taking immediate action towards those ends. You don’t have to wait until retirement.
It is easy to think of work and retirement as a dichotomy. You are working or you are retired. Life is rarely this black and white.
You do not need to be fully financially independent and ready to retire to start improving your lifestyle. Once you gain clarity on what you want and set aside self-limiting beliefs, you can begin to pursue change immediately.
Related: Not Going Back to Work
Improve Your Work Conditions
If you are not in financial position to leave work permanently, start by looking for ways to optimize your working conditions. This can include working less. Examples can be negotiating increased vacation time, a sabbatical, or going part-time. You can also look for ways to eliminate parts of your job you find undesirable.
Conventional wisdom says this is pie in the sky thinking. In reality, this may be far easier than you think. If you have worked hard in your career while also working on your personal finances, you’ve given yourself great leverage to negotiate.
An employer may find it easier and more profitable to make concessions to keep a valuable worker than to have to replace them. As you progress toward financial independence, you can negotiate from a position of power if you are willing and able to walk away.
In my final years at my job, I was able to stop the portion of my job that required me to work evenings and weekends. I also negotiated away pay raises for additional vacation time. My wife had a similar experience after deciding she never wanted to return to full-time work after having our daughter. She negotiated to work part-time, from home, and with a flexible schedule.
Those in a two-income situation have another option for flexibility. Rather than syncing your retirement process, one partner can retire or start cutting back sooner. This is another strategy we employed, giving us a more desirable lifestyle and allowing us to ease into retirement.
After giving birth to our daughter, my wife returned to work part-time while I continued full-time. Because she worked less hours and had no commute, she agreed to take on the lion’s share of the housework. While we were both still busier than we would have liked, this extra time drastically improved our lifestyle while we were both still working.
I retired from my job in December 2017, but my wife continues to work in her part-time position. Our roles at home have shifted with me taking on the bulk of the household chores. She has more time and less stress while incrementally cutting down her work hours.
This helped us get past the fear of making a big change. We’ve also benefitted from her continued income and ability to get affordable health insurance. This allows us to live a far better lifestyle with little financial stress.
I often beat the drum about redefining retirement. I am certainly not alone in sharing this message.
AARP developed the Life Reimagined program to help people navigate the many challenges associated with traditional retirement. There is also Encore.org, an organization dedicated to helping people with the financial and emotional challenges of traditional retirement by finding meaningful second act careers.
Michael Kitces writes about the three types of retirement; traditional retirement, semi-retirement, and temporary retirement/sabbaticals. Kitces notes the growing popularity of alternative approaches to retirement. His article also cited a statistic that only half of retirees plan to not work again.
On this blog, Darrow presented his retirement flexibility scale for choosing your safe withdrawal rate to help make the retirement decision. Several of the factors that would allow you to retire earlier and more securely include having the ability to return to your career, a skill that would allow you to make $1,000-2,000/month, or your willingness to do a service-sector job.
It is easy to say non-traditional retirement is “not really retiring”. I would argue that everything goes back to determining what you truly want. If your goal is to never work again, choose traditional retirement. However, if you really want to design your ideal lifestyle, have both abundance and security, and do it quickly; then you’ll need to be more flexible and creative.
Falling into the all or nothing thinking of traditional retirement can be stressful to those that cannot retire and can trap those on the fence. Being willing to simply look at the problem through a different lens can expose different options.
We all came to this blog looking to answer the question Can I Retire Yet? Invariably, the answer will at times be no. For others, you simply aren’t sure.
You cannot magically change your current financial reality. There is also no way to be certain when trying to predict factors that will influence your retirement outcome.
You still have options. Figure out what you really want, start working towards those ends immediately, then try to look at the problem from different viewpoints. You may find that what you really want is closer than you first thought.
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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. Now he draws on his experience to write about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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