Sunday, October 30, 2022

Retire Early, Work Later

Retire early and work later. Why? Is that possible? And what does that even mean?

After almost a dozen years of teaching, my wife came home one day and declared that she needed a break. She was in a fortunate position to work in a place that allowed for deferred salary. There were many options, but we opted for four-and-one: four years at 80% salary and one year off while collecting the deferred 80%. Less than a year later, she started on that plan, and four years later, we would have a "free" year. Lengthy conversation ensued over what that year would entail, and as a stay-at-home dad and freelance artist, I had the time to plan something that would embrace as many of our dreams as possible. Those dreams involved travel, and lots of it.

At age 41, we "retired," and began a trip around the world with our kids.

Why did we do it?

At the time, the best answer was that we didn't want to take our good health for granted and assume that we'd always be able to do later the things we wanted to do now. My dad died quite young (at an age that seems a lot younger the closer we get to it), so with that fresh in our minds, a year off while still fit and capable seemed like a blessing. We also wanted to have some extended quality time with our kids without the usual interruptions of life. Like work.

Looking back on things fifteen years later, that was a much wiser decision than we could have been given credit for at the time. People always say, "They grow up so fast!" but as young parents in the midst of all that young parents of young kids go through, you just go, "Yeah, yeah." The time ahead seems about a thousand times longer than the time behind. Today, with our kids in their mid and late twenties, I'm fully aware of how fast the time goes, how quickly things change, and how quickly children grow up. That year we had with our kids will never be repeated because they are such different people. Our oldest has lived another full lifetime since then, our youngest, much more than that.

Beyond that, while we have more or less been able to remain healthy, our capabilities are a different story. At 41, I could have put the world on my shoulders if that had been necessary (or push an annoying rickshaw and driver into a ditch should the need arise) 

for us to continue travelling and having fun. I could traipse all over India on a few hours sleep, carry three backpacks when the kids were tired, and take countless overnight trains, and still be able to look at the day with wonder and excitement (well, mostly). At 56, that type of travel might just be beyond my enjoyment level. I'd like to think I could do it, but…

Holding back a rock slide at Meteora, Greece.

This is not to say that travel is necessarily harder now, but that kind of travel certainly would be. Back then, we didn't need to take the easy way out. The Easy Way Out is always more expensive, and is almost always not nearly as interesting or informative. It is not filled with the same smells and tactile inputs. Again, I'm not saying that The EWO is uninteresting, but it is undeniably different. And part of getting older is making judgement calls that more often demand that you do things that aren't going to upset your stomach, cost you sleep, or destroy your rotator cuff.

Not taking the easy way out meant that we took public transit, instead of a private car, from downtown Agra to Fatehpur Sikri. There is no equivalent experience in thinking you may need to use the backpack to deflect someone else's stomach contents. Fortunately we didn't have to, but it was looking imminent at one point. Not taking the easy way out meant that we took a 36-hour train from Istanbul to Aleppo. That we did a wonderful walk along some back roads to Pienza from Monticchiello instead of driving. It means that I have a ridiculous story about our experience at the Cambodia border. It also means that I know how to smuggle cigarettes into Jordan. Actually that last one is kind of a middle-of-the-road one, not easy, but not terribly hard either. Come to think of it, we were trying to take the backpacker easy way out in Cambodia too. Easy is relative, I suppose.

A sunny Sunday walk to Pienza, Italy

All of this is to say that getting your hands dirty with the actual dirt of a country is part of the joy of travel. Part of the joy of being somewhere. Another good reason as to the why of this whole thing - we wanted to get our hands dirty in countries that were not like what we were used to, and do it as a family.

Getting our feet dirty with the glorious red earth around Gokarna, India.

While it's important to take opportunities when they present themselves, it might be just as or more important to take a leap of faith every now and then. I think we are all pretty good at doing whatever needs to be done in order to get through the day, and that while change may seem a little scary, we are adaptable creatures. It would have been easy to say, "We cannot afford to do this." By 41, we should have had a good head start on our retirement planning, saving loads of our disposable income for our golden years. Not "losing" a year of work and pension contributions, and certainly not spending our savings. And had that kind of thinking ruled the day, I would not have had the best year of my life, the most influential year, the most fun year. Believing that we could adapt and make it work, thinking that no matter what that year threw at us (like finding out our tickets from Egypt to India were cancelled only when we got to the check in counter at the airport, one week before Christmas), we could handle it, and come out the other side stronger, wiser.

Relaxing in India after the Cairo airport near-debacle.

Knowing that we could (and would) return to work and begin to make up for the lost income meant that we could take that leap with confidence. We could adapt, and make small sacrifices, that would allow us to dream big.

All these years later, it's a good lesson to remember. Some days it feels like we're almost there, that if we just save a little more, work a little longer, then we'll be able to retire - or perhaps restructure is a better word. We'll be able to restructure our lives and have the flexibility to "retire" now, again. Maybe for good.

Adapt and dream.