The Many Roads to Retirement

“Work, work, work, work, work, work. Retire.”

That’s how New York University professor Sewin Chan described the traditional retirement path at a symposium several years ago. However, that path may be changing. Her research indicates that approximately one-third of retirees from 1992 to 2004 reversed their retirement. Today, the path might look more like this (as Chan illustrated in her PowerPoint presentation): “Work, work, work. Retire (for a bit). Work. Retire?”

I re-discovered these little quotes by reading through past issues of my newsletter, which is about planning for — and living in — retirement. However, as I’ve written before, I’m a retirement expert who doesn’t plan on retiring. I’m not sure it’s best for most people’s health or wealth. And it might be just too dang risky. Plus, I like what I do, where I do it, and the people I do it with. Of course, I still save for retirement because who knows if I’ll feel the same way 30 years from now.

On the other hand, “work, work, work, work, work, work” doesn’t sound like much fun, either. But as Chan’s presentation suggested, the traditional work/retire chronology may not be the best model. Rather than saving all the retirement for the end of your life, perhaps it’s possible to rearrange the order by taking a break mid-career, gradually ratcheting down the work week, or working fewer weeks out of the year.

With this in mind, I flipped through the pages of my newsletter (eight years’ worth), looking for examples of people who have taken the retirement road less travelled. Here are a few tales I uncovered.

That “Work Just 48 Minutes Each Weekday” Guy

The first example came from an article I wrote in 2008, about a book you’ve likely heard of: The Four-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. How was then-30-year-old Ferriss able to support himself on less than a day’s worth of work per week? He created his own business and then outsourced everything else. Ferriss checks email just once a week. Another option he suggested: Become a key employee, and convince your boss to let you work from home. But instead of being at home, you’re in Berlin, Beijing, or Buenos Aires. Again, outsource as much as you can by engaging the services of companies such as Your Man in India, and email your work to the office.

While not a realistic plan for most people, Ferriss makes some worthwhile points for those looking for an alternative to “9-to-5 till you’re barely alive.” He distinguishes people who are “deferrers” — those who lead hard-charging careers in pursuit of the Holy Grail of retirement that is decades away — from the “New Rich,” who have loads of time and flexibility, and “distribute recovery periods and adventures (mini-retirements) throughout life on a regular basis and recognize that inactivity is not the goal. Doing that which excites is.”

“Personally,” he writes, “I now aim for one month of overseas relocation or high-intensity learning (tango, fighting, whatever) for every two months of work.”

My first reaction to reading his book was: Clearly, this person doesn’t have children. (I have four — that I know of.) But beyond that, Ferriss makes some provocative arguments with some catchy phrases. There’s much more to his philosophy, tips, and tricks. You can read more of what Ferriss thinks of retirement from this this interview J.D. did with him in 2008.

Supersave Your Way to Early Retirement

I’ve spilt a good deal of cyber-ink writing about safe withdrawal rates in retirement — the amount retirees can spend each year and be reasonably sure their portfolios will last as long as they do. For many years, I cited the work (and the actual words) of John Greaney, who retired from his engineering career in 1994 at age 38 and founded How did he do it? Once his school loans were paid off by age 25, he began saving 25% of his salary. As his income increased over the years, his savings rate reached 40% to 50%.

Reduce Living Expenses, Retire Sooner

Fred Brock, author of Retire On Less Than You Think, moved to Kansas after retiring from The New York Times. He sold his house in New Jersey and bought a newer house in Kansas with cash. “The absence of a mortgage payment was effectively an increase in salary,” he wrote. “In addition, our property taxes dropped from $9,000 a year to about $2,700.”

Live All Around the World

Keeping housing costs down is also how Ferriss is able to work so little, but he does it on a global scale. He calls it geoarbitrage — “to exploit global pricing and currency differences for profit or lifestyle purposes.” This strategy is also used by Motley Fool contributors Akaisha and Billy Kaderli, who retired at age 38 and live on less than $30,000 a year by staying in low-cost but exotic countries, such as Thailand, China, and Ecuador. You can read more about how they do it in this GRS interview from last summer.

Reduce Living Expenses by Living on Wheels

You know the cliché about people retiring to an RV? People really do it — and it’s inexpensive. Ron and Barb Hofmeister did it for 14 years after retiring in their 50s. They explain in their book, Movin’ On: Living and Traveling Full-Time in a Recreational Vehicle, that their living expenses ranged from $1,500 to $3,000 a month, but it can be done for much less. “The lifestyle can be adjusted to almost any income,” Barb told me in 2005. Those numbers have likely risen bit over the past seven years, but not drastically. One strategy they used: When gas prices were high, they stayed in one place longer.

Change Careers Instead of Retiring

A few years ago, Sheryl Garrett, founder of the fee-only Garrett Planning Network, told me the story of a 52-year-old woman who made just $13,000 a year. She had saved $55,000, and asked Sheryl what to do with it. Sheryl asked her, “What would you really like to do in life?” She responded, “I have always wanted to be a nurse.” After running the numbers, they decided that spending that money on a nursing degree was the best investment. Now the woman has a higher income and a new career, one she says she could enjoy well into traditional retirement age. As even Ferriss conceded in The Four-Hour Workweek, “Full-time work isn’t bad if it’s what you’d rather be doing. This is where we distinguish ‘work’ from a ‘vocation.'”

Turn Your Hobby Into Your Income

Back in the early days of my newsletter, a subscriber named Doug Short became very active on our discussion boards, providing excellent answers to a whole range of financial questions posted by other subscribers. Doug started out as an English professor, and then became a consultant for IBM, mixed in some work at GlaxoSmithKline, and eventually retired. Along the way, he built up his website construction skills and financial know-how, eventually combining the two to create a little site that conveyed economic data and history visually. It eventually showed up in places like CNN and Barron’s, and the site was bought by Advisor Perspectives (which now pays Doug to actively maintain the site in his “retirement”).

Closer to home, the founder of the very site your eyes now gaze upon might have a thing to say about turning a sideshow into the main event.

It may take years, and may never completely replace a full-time salary, but having a source of income from doing something you enjoy can add a very interesting variable to your retirement calculus.

The Retirees, They Are A’Changin’

We will see a continued variance in what “retirement” looks like over the next couple of decades. Some of that, frankly, will be due to millions of people not having enough to retire, and fewer traditional defined-benefit pensions to save them. But it will also be due to people re-thinking the whole idea of retirement. According to the Kaufmann Institute, the 55-64 age group accounted for 20.9% of new entrepreneurs in 2011, compared to 14.3% in 1996. Starting businesses isn’t just for young folks.

And you? What kind of retirement do you have planned? Know of any other examples of folks who worked a different path? Perhaps we’ll start a retirement revolution!

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