Taking the semi-retirement plunge without drowning in debt

After spending months working 60 or 70 hours per week, realizing that life is all too short, and preparing for our kids to come home, it’s time for a new financial paradigm of my own: I’m semi-retiring.

I had always been perplexed by those who, say, retired early to travel to exotic locations. I like working and don’t really like traveling, so my dreams involved some sort of fulfilling employment until I couldn’t work anymore. I’m the life of the party, I know.

But then two or three years ago, I read about a guy who took a year off from full-time employment and I thought, what if?

What if I (or my husband) could take a year or two off from full-time employment? Or work part-time for a few years? Or work six months out of the year? Is that possible and would we want to?

Maybe and probably.

So over the last 2.5 years, my husband and I crafted a plan to send at least one of us, if not both of us, into temporary, semi-retirement once our kids arrived. Ideally, we would be financially independent with no need for earning monthly income, but… yeah, we knew that wouldn’t happen. So what we needed was a job (or jobs) with very flexible and part-time hours, jobs that would allow us to help our kids transition to a new culture, and jobs that paid enough to keep the lights on.

The First Laps

Before you dive into semi-retirement, take care of the basics.

1. Decrease debt load. The more debt you have, the more money you will need to have in semi-retirement. By now, any non-mortgage debt is a distant memory. Our monthly mortgage payment is significant, so our semi-retirement income needed to be at least four times our housing costs.

2. Increase savings. Because you’re taking a break from full-time employment (and perhaps from IRA or 401(k) contributions), you need to be creative with retirement savings. On the other hand, if you get used to living on less, maybe you don’t need as much in full retirement. We’ve been contributing to Roth and traditional IRAs for over a decade. Plus, we have an emergency fund. If we didn’t have those things, decreasing our income would require more radical sacrifices.

3. Increase income. Before you semi-retire, earning more can help you decrease your debt and increase your savings. Earning more is not always possible for everyone, but this is the reason we are able to semi-retire.

The Middle of the Race

The next step is to calculate how much money you’ll really need in semi-retirement. Some expenses (like transportation costs and work clothes) will decrease. Others (utilities and health insurance) will increase. Once we knew how much money we needed, we started looking for the money to replace our full-time income.

We don’t have real estate and with very little investment income, we knew that money must come from part-time employment.

I first sought opportunities as a subject matter expert so I could maximize my income-earning potential. But I also wanted jobs that matched our new lifestyle goals: something that could be done mostly at home with very flexible hours. Fortunately, I found a side job that fit all those criteria.

While we still had some lifestyle inflation with our increased income, having a goal kept us mostly on track. As I mentioned, our goal was to stop full-time employment when our kids come home. (We are still waiting on paperwork approval. Hopefully soon!)

The Finish Line

As of today, we are making enough “semi-retirement” income to pay our bills, not counting our full-time incomes. It does mean that our 2014 income will be closer to our 2005 levels, but we are okay with that for a couple of years or more. We are confident that we can do this because we’re already living close to the semi-retirement income level.

Even though this means we’ll have to be very careful with our spending, we’re still excited. The best thing is this opportunity allows us more flexibility to spend time with our kids. We’ve missed out on too many years of their lives already. We should also have more time to do DIY projects on our little farm and start that business I have always wanted.

I’ll be honest with you, though. The last couple of years have been stressful in many ways. I’ve spent a lot of time with my laptop and not as much time with my husband — and I know it’s time that I can’t get back. Our lives felt out of balance, and there were times when I wondered if our goal was worth it.

And I had other questions, too. Did I want to quit my job? I have never had a job I loved more. Were we creating more stress by cutting our salaries… even though we would have more time to spend with our kids? What would an indefinite break do to my career? We would be leaving behind company-provided benefits like a retirement plan and health insurance. The real question? Are we crazy?

The Next Race

Maybe we are crazy, but if we don’t enjoy semi-retirement, we have options. I’m leaving my job on good terms, and it’s possible there may be a similar job opening there in a couple of years. Or, because I’m a specialist, I should be able to find a similar job at another institution if necessary.

Semi-retirement isn’t for everyone. But having your financial ducks in a row gives you options. Maybe you can cut your schedule to four days a week. Maybe you can take six months off to travel. Or take a job that pays less but you love more.

In the meantime, I’ll test the semi-retirement water for you.

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